School got fishy last week.
Seventh graders crowded around biologist Jim Gregory with a mixture of awe and disgust on their faces. They watched as Gregory radio-tagged a trout with the expertise of a seasoned surgeon. Iodine, used as a disinfectant, squirted everywhere, causing kids to squeal — they thought the dark orange solution was blood.
Gregory, who clearly enjoyed the experience, talked the Jackson Hole Middle School science students through the process of inserting the tag into the fish’s body cavity. Scattered around the Hoback River site were several other stations, covering electrofishing, water quality, the local ecosystem’s food web, river macroinvertebrates and radio telemetry.
The lucky middle schoolers were on the field trip of a lifetime. Through a partnership with Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited, Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, Teton County Conservation District and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, they had the opportunity to go into the environment and see real applications of what they were learning in science class.
“The Adopt-A-Trout program works with the local school districts to include students in a telemetry movement study by allowing classes to adopt and follow radio-tagged fish throughout the year,” Leslie Steen, Snake River Headwaters Project Manager for Trout Unlimited, told the News&Guide.
Steen said the program introduces students to resource experts and others who emphasize “the importance of Wyoming’s watersheds to a wide array of interests.”
Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Diana Miller demonstrated the finer techniques of electrofishing as a group of eager students looked on.
“You’ll get to touch fish, don’t worry,” she assured a group, laughing.
Miller said the learning wouldn’t end after the field trip was over.
“They’ll be seeing us quite a bit,” Miller said. “We come into their classrooms multiple times through May. They’ll be tracking the fish throughout time as they get their locations and map them out.”
The kids will get to follow the fish they saw Gregory tag throughout the year. Fish 460 was unofficially named “Bob the Fish” by several onlookers after Nemo was vetoed.
Miller said that making connections like these are crucial.
“People tend to care more about things they know about,” she said. “This is a unique opportunity to learn more about where we all live. These kids will be the ones to protect this habitat in the future — we won’t be around — and if they understand the environment, they’ll want to protect it.”
Part of that understanding is what, exactly, a tracker looks like inside the fish.
Aly Courtemanch, a wildlife biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish, showed the kids radio telemetry, a technology that fish and wildlife biologists use to track animals’ movements and migrations. She compared the signal the fish emit to a radio station, unique to each tag, that the receiver picks up.
“They make some trackers that are small enough to tag a butterfly,” she said. “I bet your parents would like you to wear one of these to track you.” The kids raised their eyebrows and made faces.
A chance to learn
Grace Curran, 12, said she learned a lot.
“I didn’t know you could actually tag fish before today,” she said. “We’re coming out here to learn about the qualitative and quantitative data behind these fish, and we’re going to analyze it later. I’m excited to track the fish as the year progresses.”
Meanwhile, Dave Brackett and Joe Burke taught the kids about macroinvertebrates found in the Hoback River. The creatures are low on the food chain, but according to Brackett and Burke they’re like the little veins leading into bigger ones — still vital. Both men are Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited chapter members and past board members, and experienced anglers, so they know what they’re talking about.
Students seemed fascinated by the bugs as they checked the different kinds off the list they had to identify.
Sasha Profatilov, 13, is an avid fisherman and even he learned from the multifaceted field trip.
“Showing us the different patterns of nymphs could be really useful for fishing,” he said.
Andy Melendez, 12, was also fascinated.
“We’re learning nature, and how fish can survive in it,” he said.
Language arts teacher Kelly Kaiser understood their interest.
“They’re riveted — who wouldn’t be?” she said.
Kaiser pointed out that such trips are what’s great about being a student in Jackson.
Across the field, kids learned how to test water for alkalinity, pH, turbidity and temperature. Student teacher Lily Shipley looked on.
“We’re so lucky to live in an environment with so much biodiversity,” Shipley said. “This experience is allowing the students to apply new vocabulary and engage in a different way. Sometimes a concept can be lost if it’s only learned in a textbook or in an in-class activity.”
Not just school work
Shipley added that the trip has implications beyond middle school.
“It opens their eyes to not only concepts beyond class, but career options,” she said. “Science is my passion, and I just think this is awesome.”
Gregory agreed with the importance of exposure.
“When I was a freshman in college, someone walked into the classroom and said they were getting a Ph.D. in fisheries,” he said. “I almost started laughing.
“We’re giving them tools they don’t necessarily have, and exposing them to something they could do if they’re interested.”
The kids were certainly interested, and it looked like the first field trip of the year was a smashing success.