The name is self-explanatory. Trout in the Classroom enables kids in public and private schools to raise brook trout from eggs to fingerlings in classroom aquariums and release them into nearby waterways.
Middle schoolers sometimes give names to their "fishy friends" as they learn about their life cycle, while the educational relevance to high school students includes conservation issues, mathematics, engineering, sciences, English and communications skills.
As TIC prepares for the launch of its eighth season, students and faculty are preparing aquariums and cooling units for the delivery of 300 eggs of Pennsylvania's official state fish. At the other end of the program, just outside of State College in Pleasant Gap, Centre County, the Fish and Boat Commission's sole Trout in the Classroom employee is up to her gills in shipping containers, fish food and a white-water deluge of paperwork.
"Teachers who started doing this three or seven years ago are really blossoming, taking the program places we couldn't even imagine," said project coordinator Amidea Daniel. "Each school, each classroom, each teacher, handles the program in their own way, and I help to coordinate that from here. So it's not like I just send out packages like a warehouse."
The statewide program is rooted at the Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Education and state council of Trout Unlimited, with links to similar projects throughout the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
In 2012, TIC was in 225 classrooms statewide. This year, 247 schools will participate -- a large cluster scattered throughout the Pittsburgh region, including public schools Plum, Baldwin-Whitehall, North Allegheny and Moon, and private schools Winchester Thurston and The Academy Charter School. Local program partners helping with funding and more include Family Tyes, Peters Creek Watershed Association, Hollow Oak Land Trust and Penn's Woods West Trout Unlimited.
In the TIC program, bottom-up trouble-shooting meets top-down problem solving. Daniel said a high-priority goal for the 2013-14 season is reversing an unusually high incidence of aquarium mortality that has occurred at schools throughout the state during the last two years.
Trout in the Classroom is not a stocking program -- the 2 1/2- to 3-inch "fishy friends" released into waterways in the spring aren't expected to make it to adulthood. In natural settings, about 2 percent of brook trout survive to maturity; Daniel said in the classroom they're doing "quite well" if about 5 percent of the 300 eggs, or 15 fish, grow to fingerling status.
But in the last two years, TIC die-off was unusually high. In some schools, none of the trout made it to the lake. And while there's educational value in learning that death is part of the life cycle, there's surely more to learn from living fish.
In the schools, trouble-shooting ruled out water contamination, temperature control and other variables. At the state level, the health of the eggs and efficacy of procedures were verified.
Ultimately, it was determined that the fish died from missing Christmas dinner.
"In normal years, the brook trout feed for two to three solid weeks before the Christmas break," said Daniel.
Last year the "swim up" -- when the young trout's attached yoke sack is absorbed and they begin to feed for the first time -- occurred late, just three to four days before Christmas break.
"With the swim-up late, they hadn't been eating and then went two to three days without food," while classrooms were empty for Christmas, said Daniel. "At that time, the brook trout are very susceptible to disease."
This year in TIC classrooms across the state, a minor change is expected to have big results.
"We're increasing the temperatures in the aquariums about 2 degrees to encourage faster development of the brook trout so they're feeding well one to two weeks prior to the Christmas break," she said. "It's never a dull program. The new brook trout are acting a lot different than last year's brook trout. It's something different every year."
TIC is also "beefing up" its website to include more research information and curricula resources, such as a video of the entire process from spawning to release. And Daniel is encouraging more TIC teachers to combine their fish release events with a family fishing program to lock in the important connection of conservation education, outdoor recreation and a sense of environmental stewardship that may stay with the kids for the rest of their lives.
None of the program's marginal costs are paid through local school taxes. Since 2006, Fish and Boat has provided an average of $55,000 per year to the TIC program, including $10,000 provided for Trout Unlimited's annual TIC grants. The PFBC aquatic education grants come from the Sport Fish Restoration Trust Fund. Local partners and sponsors contribute additional funding.
Since its start, volunteers from Trout Unlimited, watershed groups, conservation districts, conservancies, businesses and independent sportsmen have donated 15,900 hours to TIC. Pennsylvania teachers have focused 23,000 hours of class time on topics related to the program, working them into a variety of scholastic subjects.
Despite a level of independence in each classroom, teachers are required to submit detailed reviews, trouble-shooting emails, expense reports and additional paperwork -- most of it destined for processing by Daniel. Much of it is formatted for her Harrisburg bosses, while "tips and tricks" learned by teachers are shared with others through the TIC website. It's a lot of indoor office work for an accomplished fly angler married to former U.S. national fly fishing champion George Daniel, both of whom would rather be out fishing with their two children.
But Daniel said it's personally rewarding when she gets to interact with TIC students.
"It's a good program that's linked to so many things," she said. "For the kids, it's good for them to know they have a good healthy coldwater system in their backyard."
Read more about Trout in the Classroom at www.patroutintheclassroom.org.