No one is born with an innate understanding of nature and how to relate to it in a civilized world. It's acquired knowledge.
A growing number of conservationists say that's bad news for a generation of Americans growing up with few outdoors mentors and little connection to nature. Conservationists including best-selling author Richard Louv warn that "nature-deficit disorder" has dangerous implications for a growing body of voters with little boots-on-the-ground knowledge of how nature works and a skewed appreciation of its value.
But in a climate of bureaucratic penny pinching where serious cuts to education budgets are routine, one statewide program brings practical, hands-on cold-water conservation into the classrooms.
With roots embedded at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Education and state council of Trout Unlimited, and with tendrils reaching into nearly 200 Pennsylvania schools, Trout in the Classroom is exactly what its name suggests: kids actually raise brook trout from eggs to fingerlings in classroom aquariums and release them into nearby waterways. None of the program's marginal costs are paid through local school taxes, and the educational value stretches beyond conservation to include mathematics, engineering, sciences and English and communications skills.
"Plus, the kids love it," said Josh Cramer, a teacher at South Park Middle School. "It's become this whole sixth grade thing. Every teacher teaches a part of it."
Eight years ago, Cramer and South Park science teacher John Dieterle initiated one of several pilots testing the program for Fish and Boat. Trout in the Classroom was officially launched in 11 classes in 2006.
"Today the project is in 187 classrooms across Pennsylvania, and has reached about 63,000 students statewide," said Spring Younkin, regional outreach and education coordinator for the Fish and Boat Commission.
In Southwest Pennsylvania, Trout in the Classroom is in 36 schools including South Park Middle School, McKnight Elementary School in McCandless, Winchester-Thurston School in Shadyside and The Academy Charter School in Hays. The program is active throughout the United States, Canada and United Kingdom.
Participation is initiated by individual teachers with the support of their schools. Education grants from Fish and Boat, Trout Unlimited, the Department of Education and local nonprofit partners pay for fertilized brook trout eggs cultured at Fish and Boat's Benner Spring Hatchery in Bellefonte. The grants are also used to buy the aquariums, aerators, fish food and other supplies used in the classrooms. Trout Unlimited and Fish and Boat provide the personnel, technical assistance and educational workshops necessary to manage the program.
On a daily basis, students care for the eggs, watch them hatch and help them grow before releasing the fingerlings into the wild. Along the way, they learn about the biology of Pennsylvania's state fish and the importance of cold-water conservation, build ties with the community and, their teachers hope, become lifelong stakeholders in the natural environment.
Each Trout in the Classroom experience is unique because each school puts its own spin on how it supplements existing curricula.
At South Park, a certified engineering middle school, sixth and eighth graders focus primarily on the scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical aspects of raising the fish. Family Tyes, a nonprofit group that provides youth mentoring through fly fishing, is the community partner.
"The big thing for us," said Cramer, "is having kids understand that subjects relate to one another -- putting it all together in the classroom."
McKnight Elementary School takes Trout in the Classroom to the second-grade level.
"In elementary school the kiddos learn the life cycle of frogs and butterflies and chicks," said teacher, fly fisherman and Penn's Woods West Trout Unlimited newsletter editor Christian Shane. "The trout tie in really nicely for the kids."
At The Academy, an alternative charter school for court-adjudicated students in grades 8 through 12, most from urban public schools, the focus is on introducing city kids to nature.
"They really focus on learning about the ecosystem of the local watershed," said school spokesman Dick Roberts, "and even taking the field trip to release the trout in Montour Run is an experience they never would have had in their home schools."
Fish and Boat stresses the linkages between stewardship of aquatic resources and recreational participation, which in turn, the agency believes, leads to more active stewardship.
"People are used to seeing adult trout," said Younkin, "but they don't always understand how delicate they are when they're young and how human impacts on the creeks affect them, and why we have to stock trout in some areas."
In November, about 60,000 brook trout eggs were shipped to participating schools across the state -- each school gets 250 to 300 eggs. Survival in captivity is generally better than in the wild, and classes typically release 50 to 100 fingerlings. If tank mortality is high, Fish and Boat sends a batch of ready-to-release fingerlings. Students tend to bond with their "fishy friends" -- some of the trout are given names -- but Younkin said the fingerlings aren't expected to survive to adulthood in the wild.
"It's not a restoration program," she said. "It's there to educate kids about the life cycle and cold-water conservation. Whether they release one fish or 100, they've still had a successful program."