‘Trout in the Classroom’ Program Helps Students Appreciate Nature, Conservation

It’s so important to create experiential learning scenarios for students, especially in the sciences. Hands-on projects in real-world settings usually lead to a much deeper understanding and retention of the material – and in some cases, an added sense of purpose and connectedness.

Randolph Academy Science Teacher James Vitale has witnessed this first-hand, thanks to his students’ participation in “Trout in the Classroom.” The program is led by Trout Unlimited, a nationwide non-profit organization with 300,000 members and supporters dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s cold water fisheries and watersheds. Through it, our students raise dozens of brown trout throughout the school year, with the goal of releasing them into the wild in late spring.

Each October, Mr. Vitale connects with Trout Unlimited, which collaborates with New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to provide Randolph Academy with stocking permits, fish food and roughly 100 fish eggs – which are raised and cared for by our students right in his classroom, using special equipment.

From there, it’s up to the students! They are responsible for raising them from eggs to “fingerlings” – the development stage at which the fins can be extended and scales start developing. They monitor the aquarium water’s quality, ensuring that it stays well balanced and in a range suitable for developing trout. They perform weekly water changes and are in charge of feedings, which includes being careful to not overfeed them.

Of course, as with most wildlife, the larger fish (i.e., ones that are growing faster) may eat the smaller fish when given an opportunity along the way – and students learn to deal with that reality and sense of loss. However, after roughly seven months, about 30% to 45% of the quarter-inch-long eggs will reach the four-inch-long fingerling stage – roughly the size of an adult finger, as the name suggests.

“This year, we started with 81 eggs and had 37 fish that developed,” Mr. Vitale said. “That’s the highest number of surviving fish for the program, at roughly 46%.”

Along the way, students also engage in stream habitat studies and foster a conservation ethic as they develop an understanding of ecosystem interconnectedness. Our students also take a field trip (in a non-pandemic year) to the DEC’s hatchery in the southern tier as part of the curriculum.

All of this leads up to the celebration of “Trout Release Day” at the end of the school year when, after caring for these fish for more than 200 days, students travel with Mr. Vitale to release them into nature along Hamburg’s Eighteen-Mile Creek, which flows into Lake Erie. The students’ faces always light up when they see science and nature in action, and their fish swim away.

Mr. Vitale is very grateful to those who helped the program launch and thrive, especially Mr. Chuck Godfrey at Trout Unlimited, which provided financial and educational support, including partial funding for the equipment needed to raise the fish.

“Mr. Godfrey hand-delivers the eggs – and even donated waders so that the kids can get into the water on Release Day,” Mr. Vitale explained. “We really can’t thank him enough for his commitment.”

Recently retired Hamburg Campus Principal John Kwietniewski also played an integral role in Randolph Academy joining the program.

“Without ‘Mr. K’s’ leadership and initiative, the program would not be here,” Vitale said. “I’m very appreciative of all the work he did to get everything up and running in our Science room.” Now in its fourth year at Randolph Academy, well over 100 students have been able to play a role in this enriching experience. We’re thrilled that students have the opportunity to gain a better appreciation of nature as well as the valuable sense of responsibility which comes from caring for other living creatures.