The students circled round the “watershed trailer.” Some sifted distractedly through the sand and others watched intently as a makeshift river gushed past miniature plastic frogs and otters through the mock riparian ecosystem.
The display, set up at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery on June 3, was part of the field trip that capped a school year spent studying the aquatic environments of Jackson Hole and their inhabitants. So Wyoming Game and Fish fisheries technician Max Lewis asked the 12- and 13-year-olds to reflect on why they had devoted so much time to the subject.
“’Cause they made us,” one astute boy observed.
It was the response you might expect of a seventh grader, especially with the middle-school equivalent of senioritis setting in just days before summer.
After two field days and five classroom sessions, though, most of the 225 or so students seem to have genuinely enjoyed learning about the life cycle of trout, the danger of invasive species and much more — even if the fly-fishing lesson was a near-unanimous favorite.
“Usually school is really boring,” Andrew Hanna, 13, said with a grin. “But this is really cool and hands-on, especially because it relates back to Jackson. I see this stuff every day.”
Throughout the afternoon, as the adult experts hurled esoteric questions at their pupils, the seventh graders vied to answer first and, impressively often, answered correctly.
What supports the riverbank?
What do you call it when water washes away the sand?
That, said Leslie Steen, is the goal: to engage the next generation of environmental stewards and help them understand natural processes and their influence in those processes.
“They learn a bunch,” said Steen, the Snake River Headwaters Project Manager for Trout Unlimited, “and if a fraction of it stays with them, we’re happy.”
Since 2007 Trout Unlimited has organized the Adopt-a-Trout program for Jackson Hole Middle School’s two seventh grade science classes. The curriculum varies from year to year, but as the name implies the students “adopt” trout and track their movement via implanted tags.
This year, besides following their fish through Horse Creek, they took a tour of the fish hatchery and the golf course at Shooting Star, where they explored how “what we do on land has the potential to affect water quality,” Steen said.
According to Michelle Reisbeck, who teaches one of the classes, sometimes the program’s effect on her students runs deeper than a few remembered facts. One was so captivated by what he saw several years ago that he decided then and there to become a fish biologist. Now a high school senior, she said, he’s headed to college to pursue that dream.
And if nothing more, she said, “it gives them a little more respect for the place they live in. Makes them see the importance of taking care of things — and throwing away your water bottles.”
Mari Allan Hanna, Andrew Hanna’s mother, agreed. After joining the class at the fish hatchery and seeing her son and the other students take an interest in the science of local watersheds, she guessed the experience would have a lasting impression.
“They’ll be telling their kids about their seventh-grade trip when they saw fish eggs up close,” she said. “It’ll stick with them, even if they don’t want to admit it.”