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Fish farm teaching students real-life lessons

The hands-on learning project involves the community and makes learning fun for the students at West Hernando Middle School.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000

[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
Katie Hanley, left, and Blake Jarrell clean a filter on one of the "fish farm" tanks at West Hernando Middle School.
Each morning in their assigned roles as maintenance personnel, seventh-graders Katie Hanley and Julie Jage have their work cut out for them.

Over the span of about 45 minutes, they must look after the 250 or so finned creatures that swim about a huge 500-gallon tank parked near their classroom at West Hernando Middle School.

The two 12-year-olds run sophisticated tests to measure oxygen levels and detect toxins. They also must change 10 gallons of water each day to help protect against suffocation. And of course, they have to search for and remove any dead specimens in the tank.

"That's the part of the job that no one likes," Julie said. "It's gross."

But it's also part of the many lessons being learned from the fish farm project, which kicked off at the beginning of the school year. Since August the seventh-grade Navigator team has nurtured its small crop to considerable success. In fact, aside from a minor setback or two, nearly all of the 250 catfish and talapia fingerlings are thriving.

Ray Pinder, one of the teachers who helped initiate the project, isn't surprised.

"The kids have really put their hearts into it," said Pinder, who teaches math to the 150 students in the Navigator team. "It's fun for them, but for them it's also a serious business. They know success or failure pretty much depends on them."

With the catfish averaging about 4 inches, they are well on their way to their harvesting size of about a pound.

Each week students weigh a few samples and adjust feed and water requirements accordingly. They keep meticulous notes.

"It's important to keep track of everything," seventh-grader Blake Jarrell said. "We make graphs so we know how much everything costs and so that we'll have an idea of where we should be next time."

The project is the latest in a line of hands-on student projects that have become something of a hallmark at the middle school. In the past two years, students have taken part in many, including the construction of a 150-foot wooden footbridge, an aviary, plus numerous landscape projects.

The fish farm is part of an ecology-based project that eventually will include a second fish tank as well as an outdoor hydroponic vegetable garden. A combination of grants and donations are helping to fund the projects, which the educators think offer a reciprocal value to all involved.

"It's a great partnership between the school and the community," Pinder said. "But it's not like we ask them to throw dollars at a project. We invite everyone involved to come out and see how that money is spent."

Few of the students involved in the project knew much about farm-raising catfish and talapia.

"I don't even think I've ever eaten catfish," said Scott Ketcham, 12. "But raising them is a pretty big responsibility because if something goes wrong, they can die fast."

Recently, the students found out how fast. A sudden outburst of parasites claimed more than a dozen fish before they realized something was wrong. Eventually the rest of the herd was treated by releasing a small amount of salt into the tank, which drove the parasites out.

The students' concern for the fish proved to Pinder just how serious they have become about the project.

"It's like a small business to them, but it also teaches them team-building and cooperation, too," Pinder said. Indeed, the students are involved in every aspect of the fish farm, from raising them to eventually marketing and transporting them to potential buyers.

Like other hands-on projects the school has sponsored, the fish farm takes into consideration an interdisciplinary curriculum developed by Pinder and fellow Navigator educators Kathy Eppley, Pamela Lahey and David Zack.

Students who participate also put their language arts, reading and math skills into practice.

Math skills play an integral role every day as students calculate their fish's growth and nutrition requirements. And when the population was attacked by the parasites, several students spent hours searching the Internet for a cure.

"They are less likely to look at learning as a task when they have something they can apply it to," said Eppley, the team's reading specialist.

The catfish and talapia, due to be harvested in the spring, still have an uncertain future at this point, Pinder said. Most of the students would prefer the fish be sold to a seafood business or grocery store. Others would like to see at least part of the harvest set free in area lakes and ponds.

"A lot of them still see the fish as pets," Pinder said. "I keep reminding them that they aren't pets, they are a crop."

Nonetheless, he says, the experience has provided valuable lessons his students will take with them throughout their lives.

"The good thing is that it hasn't been without some failures," Pinder said. "But then with something like this, you can't learn as much from success as you can from failure."

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