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Trout in the Classroom program connects students with important cold-water resources as they raise small fry

by on April 30, 2020 12:40 PM

Austin Smith and his fellow seventh-graders at Bellefonte Area Middle School spent time before school closed because of COVID-19 going beyond textbooks and into a different kind of learning environment – a fish tank.

The tank inside of Allison D’Ambrosia’s science classroom was filled with rainbow trout, joining more than 400 classrooms across the state as part of Trout in the Classroom, a cooperative effort among Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, schools, teachers, and site leaders. The partnership provides curriculum resources, workshops, technical support, trout eggs and food, and grants.

Participating schools and classrooms raise rainbow trout from eggs to small fry to learn about current and past impacts, management, and protection and enhancement opportunities of Pennsylvania’s cold-water resources, all while raising trout in the classroom.

Throughout the year, students are not only introduced to the importance of cold-water conservation efforts, ecosystems, habitat, water resources, and management strategies to protect/enhance those resources, but they also begin to understand and appreciate the importance of healthy watersheds not only for trout and other aquatic organisms, but also for human communities. The trout are then released into stocked trout waters in the region.

“As the students and community members observe the life-cycle stages of a trout, they learn key information about how vulnerable each life stage is to pollutants, sedimentation, development, and the importance of having baseline data for water quality to help protect watersheds long-term,” says Amidea Daniel, northcentral region outreach education coordinator for the Fish and Boat Commission.

When D’Ambrosia first told students about the project, Austin admits he was unsure what he and his fellow students would be learning. He ended up pleasantly surprised.

“I was surprised there were a lot more trout then I thought and I thought they’d be weaker, but they are actually pretty strong,” says Austin, 13. “It’s fun to have the fish because you get to see the differences among them, you get to do tests, and you get to feed them and take care of them. It helps because if you ever want to fish, you already have an idea what happens if you don’t treat them right.”

The assignments Austin and other students are learning are more than taking measurements and noting changes with the fish. Lessons also include what many students are drawn to – social media. One assignment involved creating social media accounts and posts for the fish in the tank, along with incorporating research on things like habitat.

“I think this is a good way to learn because it brings in what kids learn and use with lessons and it mixes really well,” says Autumn McCloskey, 12, another of D’Ambrosia’s students. “I think it’s fun because you get to experiment with social media and mix it with lessons. I’ve enjoyed learning about fish habitats and the ways we (fish and humans) are both structured. It’s really interesting to think about how we are so similar and so different.”

D’Ambrosia first learned about Trout in the Classroom in 2014 after receiving an e-mail from the 100 Women’s Club to see if anyone was interested in participating. D’Ambrosia says she jumped at the chance.

“I have a zookeeping background and love having live animals in my classroom,” she says. “They have a great way of capturing the kids’ attention and motivation, providing lots of teachable moments. My role is to maintain the tank, as well as incorporate our trout into the curriculum of the classroom. I then plan our release day field trip.”

She says the biggest benefits are the interest the students show in a native creature right in their own learning spaces.

“They come into class and check out the fish, making observations of how they have changed and what behaviors they are newly exhibiting,” she explains. “The highlights are always the first time they catch one eating another. We can incorporate the fish into many of our lessons, which gives them a real-life example of what we are learning. The feedback I have received from both kids and parents is how much they like having the opportunity to watch them grow.

“The kids really love the release field trip as they get to just play in the creek exploring the creatures that live there after counting and releasing the fish,” she says of prior years.

With the closure of in-person instruction for Pennsylvania schools, D’Ambrosia planned to release the trout in late April. In the meantime, they were being cared for by a staff member.

Bellefonte Area Middle School joins eight other Centre County schools and facilitates taking part in the program, including the YMCA of Centre County. For the 10,000 or more members and non-members who walk through the Y every year, they may look to their left and see the trout proudly on display, along with information on the program. The YMCA has been a Trout in the Classroom site for the past six years.

“Every day, hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds see the partnership we have with the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission,” says Jamie SanFilippo, director of community outreach for the YMCA of Centre County and president of the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “They are also connected to resources about local conservation efforts, educational materials, and free programs specifically for women anglers, children, and veterans. Everyone who comes into the building is immediately drawn to the display. Families and children enjoy watching the trout grow and learn about their different phases of life. It is important to us that we connect children to natural resources and educate them about conservation and protecting our cold-water streams in Pennsylvania, especially in Centre County.”

Each year, Trout in the Classroom grows by 30 to 40 sites, bringing conservation and educational efforts to new students and community members. Daniel says in addition to having a better understanding of the importance watersheds play in all communities, students and community members are also introduced to recreational opportunities in which to enjoy those resources responsibly. 

Teachers and site leaders get to utilize the program’s curriculum map and additional resources found on the state and national program websites to key into specific topics they may already be teaching within the schools. The curriculum map provides teachers and leaders with a map of lesson ideas and resources they can teach throughout the year. 

“When TIC is placed in community locations, like the YMCA, it opens up doors for exploring and understanding our important watersheds, the lifeblood of every community,” she says. “It spurs community members to ask about what it is, why is it here, what is a watershed, and opens the doors to have frank conversations of the importance to conserve, protect, and enhance our waterways for the betterment of our communities’ health and the animals that call those watersheds home.”

Susan Braun has been utilizing Trout in the Classroom for two years in her science lessons at State College Area High School. She has found ways to use the curriculum in various areas, including her environmental science classes.

“We have a unit on water quality and watersheds and we did a canoe trip last fall with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation so students could experience being on a section of the Susquehanna River and see what factor affects a river and to consider what they can do on the river,” Braun says. “We did water-quality testing and collected macroinvertebrates and students experience what is needed for a healthy ecosystem. This parallels the TIC tank in helping students understand how we need healthy streams in order to have trout.”

Braun and her students also use a watershed model called an Enviroscape in the classroom to understand what happens on the land and the impact on water quality and also connect to other units like forestry.

The closure of in-person instruction meant an early release for classroom trout at State High and the Delta program, without the usual fanfare.

"It was so disappointing not to do a school release or to even have kids participate," Braun says. "I went into the building on a Tuesday and had to get 128 trout out of the tank into buckets by myself. My TIC partner Larry Ragan met me and we also went and collected the fish from Delta's tank. We released on a cold, dreary afternoon at Lake Perez before the gate was locked."

For anyone thinking about how Trout in the Classroom may be included in their class or facility, Braun suggests just do some research and try the program.

“It’s one of the best projects a school can be involved in and PA TIC makes it easy,” she assures.

To learn more about Trout in the Classroom, visit For teachers and site leaders interested in learning about how to get started with the program, contact Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Trout in the Classroom Coordinator Cody Whipple at [email protected]


Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and programming coordinator of Penn State’s Gender Equity Center.


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