After months of excitement about the prospect of raising trout in their classroom and releasing them into a local stream, the big day arrived for about 20 Columbia High School students.

That day last November, the students entered Lindsay Garrett’s chemistry classroom to find a 55-gallon aquarium in the back corner. It was completely covered with sheets of Styrofoam. The students could see nothing because trout eggs are sensitive to light and have to be kept in darkness.

Even a poster with the quip “Fish Are Friends, Not Food,” from the movie “Finding Nemo,” couldn’t stunt the students’ disappointment.

Despite that unimpressive start, the Trout in the Classroom project has been a rousing success at the school, using hands-on education methods to instill the conservation ethic intended by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and its partners.

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Columbia High School student Sophie Hinkle gets ready to sample water quality in an aquarium being used to grow trout.

“It’s really, really cold,” exclaims Sophie Hinkle, an 11th-grader on a recent morning, as she plunges her arm past her elbow into the 52-degree tank water to take water samples.

By now, Garrett and Rebecca Ohrel, a biology teacher involved in the project, don’t have to tell their students what to do.

Hinkle tests the water for levels of nitrates, pH, ammonia. If the levels are off, any one of these will kill the tiny brook trout. Emily Stephens, a senior, uses a hose to siphon out waste the trout expel.

Dorian Grimes pours stale water from the tank into a sink. Fellow student Gabe Grove delivers fresh water — tap water set out earlier to ensure that the chlorine has evaporated from it.

The students act with purpose. They want to make sure the maximum number of 2-inch trout survive until May. Then the fish will be eased into into a local waterway, probably Little Chiques Creek.

The students feel responsible for the lives given over to their care. Teachers Garrett and Ohrel look on with approval.

Popular program

The teachers had heard about Trout in the Classroom at a science literacy conference and were determined to bring it to their students.

Garrett and Ohrel received training on how to raise the trout from eggs, but they had to get their own equipment. They wrote a proposal that won a $1,500 grant from the Wal-Mart Community Foundation.

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Columbia High School student Dorian Grimes pours water from an aquarium with trout.

Trout in the Classroom has grown quickly after being initiated by enterprising schoolteachers in New York state. Last year the program was conducted in 318 schools in Pennsylvania, involving 35,639 students and 283 teachers.

In the process, some 25,000 fingerling trout were released into streams that the Fish and Boat Commission stocks.

This year, 13 public schools and one private school in Lancaster County are participating; that’s possibly more than in any other county in the state.

Many lessons

From the beginning, the Columbia students had to understand the intricacies of good water quality and take action or watch their charges go belly up — literally.

The original 306 eggs have produced 187 wiggly fingerlings — a good result considering the perils of raising trout indoors.

Four eggs hatched with two heads. That became another learning experience, as the teachers had the students examine the mutations under a microscope.

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Brook trout fingerlings being raised at Columbia High School as part of a Trout In The Classroom project.

Certainly, problem-solving skills were needed as the students nurtured their trout.

The aquarium filter had 16 parts that the students pieced together like a puzzle.

But at one point, water quality was dropping, and eggs were dying. The students deduced that the feed contaminated the water. They reduced feeding to once every few days. Sure enough, the water quality improved, stemming the die-off.

The students say they have been affected by those eyes staring at them through the glass. “They’ve become very attached to the fish,” Ohrel says, and take it hard when one of their charges dies.

“The beginning was just nerve-wracking,” Ohrel says. “Now, we’re just happy to see them all still alive.”

Echoes Garrett, “When we came in in the morning, our greatest fear would be that they’d all be dead.”

Letting go

Now that the remaining trout are growing and heading toward life outside an aquarium, the students are torn between not wanting to end their fish-rearing days and excitement at freeing the trout.

“I don’t want to release them. We were with them since they were eggs,” Hinkle says.

Fellow student Jimi Griffith, a senior, offers a different perspective: “I just hope they get to go out in the wild.”