DENNISON TWP. — On the first day of the 2017-18 school year, Michael Skokoski had an objective.
The year before, Skokoski watched the older students at the Hazleton Area Academy of Sciences raise fish as part of the Trout in the Classroom program. Now that he was entering his junior year, Skokoski wanted to do the same.
“As soon as I walked into school on the first day, I went for the trout,” he said. “I signed right up for this.”
Last week, Skokoski and 19 other students involved in the TIC program concluded the school year and their involvement with the fish, releasing 42 fingerling brook trout into Reilly Creek at Nescopeck State Park.
It was a bittersweet moment as many of the students were sad to see the fish go. But the lessons they learned from the experience will last a lifetime.
“There are so many educational elements to this, involving biology, chemistry and anatomy,” said teacher Jeff Koch, who has conducted a TIC program in his classroom for the last three years. “English teachers even used it, as students kept journals of the trout throughout the year. And there’s an art component as well.”
The Trout in the Classroom program is a joint venture between the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited. Trout eggs and start-up kits are provided to participating schools in October, and students raise trout in a classroom aquarium, taking care of feeding, changing and monitoring water and doing anything else the trout need to survive and grow.
The eggs are supplied by the PFBC, and John Arway, executive director of the agency, said the program has been growing significantly over the years. There are 356 TIC programs in classrooms statewide.
Arway said TIC provides for a connection between the classroom and nature, allowing teachers to teach around a number of concepts that ultimately culminates with the release of the trout into a nearby stream.
“The kids are really dedicated to this and they have a sense of pride when they talk about raising the fish,” Arway said. “For a lot of kids, they wouldn’t be exposed to fishing and nature if it wasn’t for this program.”
Koch’s students began the year 433 eggs, realizing a 9 percent survival rate. While there were many lessons learned during the classroom portion of the program, last week’s release day gave the students a chance to put their education to the test.
The fingerlings were divided between several groups, and they students trekked up and down Reilly Creek searching for suitable habitat —a deep pool with a bit of fast, oxygenated water to release their fish.
Kristian Gruyair, who will be a senior next school year, noted the importance of water temperature — 56 degrees is perfect for trout when searching for a place to release the fish.
“When I go fishing, you just see the fish you catch and that’s it. I never saw them grow from an egg to fingerling, so this is something I definitely wanted to do,” Gruyair said.
The Western Pocono Chapter of Trout Unlimited partnered with the school to help fund the TIC program and provide equipment and training. Chapter president Mike Gondell briefed the students on the anatomy of a trout stream before they released the fish, pointing out that Reilly Creek is one of several high-quality streams in Nescopeck State Park.
“There’s a good tree canopy here which keeps it cool and stabilizes the banks, the water is oxygenated and there are plenty of rocks to support insect life,” Gondell said. “Without the habitat, you won’t have trout.”
Diane Madl, an environmental education specialist supervisor with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said one of the biggest lessons from the TIC program is it teaches the students the importance of protecting the environment. Because the students have a direct role in raising the trout, Madl said, they have a stake in protecting the habitat where the fish were released.
“We hope it’s a cycle that will continue with the students long after the program is over for the year,” Madl said.
While the ultimate goal of the TIC program is to release the trout in their natural habitat, the end result was a bit sad for some of the students who helped care for the fish on a daily basis.
“They’ve been a part of our classroom for so long it’s hard to let them go,” said junior Alissa Platukis. “But it’s cool to think that the offspring of these fish could help the trout population for years to come. Wild trout will be in this creek because of what we did.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky