Students from Tinley Park High School making themselves at home in the local stream. Photo by Chad Robson.

May 1, 2024

Meet the New Kid in Class: Fish!
Aquaculture in the classroom helps inspire the next generation of students

When you think of fish in a classroom, you may think of students sharing their space with a tasteful little aquarium full of tiny, colorful, tropical fish. You may not be picturing fish tanks the size of hot tubs, complete with recirculating pipes, biofiltration, and chemical management systems, but that’s just what some students across the state get to experience when teachers incorporate aquaculture into the classroom.

When you break down the word “aquaculture” into its component parts, you end up with “aqua,” which means water, and “culture,” which in this case means farming. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) defines aquaculture as the controlled breeding, hatching, propagation or raising of aquatic life, which includes fish, mollusks, crustaceans, algae and other aquatic plants and invertebrates. This intentional cultivation of aquatic life has existed globally for centuries and can be used as both an alternative to harvesting wild seafood as well as a conservation or recreation strategy. In the United States, the earliest aquaculture projects took place in the 1800s and were focused on raising fish to stock for recreational use, rather than food. Aquaculture continued developing and diversifying through the 1900s. Today, aquaculture in the United States is a $1.5 billion dollar industry.

A range of aquaculture operations exist in Illinois: public, private and classroom hatcheries. The three IDNR-operated public fish hatcheries in Illinois can produce more than 50 million fish of 20 different species at full capacity. Several private fish farms operate in the state, supplying large numbers of fish to customers. Classroom operations operate on a much smaller scale, raising maybe 50 fish over the course of a school year. Even within these smaller classrooms; however, there is still quite a bit of variety.

Trout in the Classroom

A group of students stand next to large plastic cylindrical tanks used for tilapia aquaculture.
Students from Annawan High School show off their tilapia aquaculture system. Photo by Claire Snyder, IDNR.

In northeastern Illinois, the Trout in the Classroom program has engaged students with classroom aquaculture for more than 15 years. A partnership between the IDNR, Trout Unlimited, and individual teachers, Trout in the Classroom was launched in the state in 2007 after members of the Illinois Council of Trout Unlimited reached out to IDNR biologists about starting a local project modelled after successful Trout in the Classroom Projects on the east and west coasts. The program is a successful example of coordination between state agencies, conservation advocacy not-for-profits and schools. Today, 30 classrooms are raising rainbow trout during the school year for release into the wild at different river and lake locations.

“Urban and suburban youth don’t always have the support or opportunity to engage with fisheries and the outdoor world,” noted IDNR Lake Michigan Program Manager Vic Santucci, when asked about the value of the program. “The Trout in the Classroom program does a great job of providing students with a hands-on project to inform them about cold water fishes (trout and salmon), and hopefully spark an interest in science, fishing and the plentiful natural resources available throughout northern Illinois.”

Marvin Strauch, the Trout in the Classroom Coordinator with the Illinois Council of Trout Unlimited, highlighted the collaborative nature of the project, remarking that “IDNR provides the [fish] eggs and food and licenses to the school programs. Trout Unlimited provides a source of possible funding for equipment, assistance in starting the program and brings some programs to the schools. The individual teachers build the program around their own curricula.”

Integrating live fish culture into classroom curricula gives teachers a chance to demonstrate real-world scientific principles in action. Middle school teacher Emily Purk, from Prairie View Middle School, is now in her tenth year of participating in the program. She stressed that “the trout become a part of every unit we do. From studying photosynthesis and cellular respiration, to understanding the flow of matter and energy through ecosystems, to climate change and human impact on the environment, or genetics, having the tank of fish in the classroom helps make real life connections. It’s amazing the connections the students make.”

Chad Robson, a Tinley Park High School teacher, incorporates the fish into his biology, anatomy and physiology classes, studying comparative embryology by comparing non-fertile chicken eggs to developing trout eggs. An avid fisherman and outdoorsman himself, Robson echoed the many ways he has used fish as an educational tool during his six years with the program: “There are phenomenal connections when we study ecology, food chains and webs, water quality testing and chemistry.”

Releasing the Trout

A group of students stand in a stream about to release trout. In the background is a shoreline full of green lush vegetation.
Students from Tinley Park High School releasing trout into a local stream as part of the Trout in the Classroom program. Photo by Chad Robson.

Both Purk and Robson agree that the best part of the experience is the trout release field trip, where students from each classroom get to release their trout into an IDNR Division of Fisheries-approved location in a local river or Lake Michigan. Trout have never been key species in the Prairie State, so locations and approved waters to stock are important. As a predator, trout can shape the streams where they are stocked, so the Fisheries Division reviews these activities closely.

Robson noted that his students have learned how to use a seine, different sampling techniques, and macroinvertebrate identification skills in a setting that provides the students with a much more hands-on experience than reading in a textbook, not to mention experiencing the challenge of being out of their comfort zone and getting great exposure to the outdoors.

“Eighth graders are often ‘too cool for school’ but they jump right in to wading into the stream, collecting samples, and other activities,” Purk effused.

The IDNR Role

IDNR staff are proud to support these programs. Fisheries staff from the Aquaculture, Rivers and Streams, Hatchery, Inland Lakes and Reservoirs, and Lake Michigan programs participate in various ways to help ensure successful programs, and they agree that these kinds of programs are critical to exposing today’s students to opportunities in natural resource and fisheries management.

In summarizing the benefits of participating in this program, Paul Brown, manager at Jake Wolf Hatchery which supplies eggs to the Trout in the Classroom Program, said “Our goal is to create informed future anglers, raise awareness about what is involved in proper watershed management, and to give insight into an unsung profession. Jake Wolf is proud of the small part we play in igniting passion for the outdoors and feeding the curiosity of aquaculture into the next generation.”

“These programs are gateways for instilling in young people an interest in the environment and aquatic ecology; potentially even guiding students to future careers emersed in an appreciation of the outdoors,” noted Tristan Widloe, an IDNR Streams Specialist.

Annawan High School’s Aquaculture Program

In northwestern Illinois, students at Annawan High School are raising fish in their classroom for a different purpose entirely: a good, old-fashioned fish fry.

Unlike the urban and suburban schools participating in the Trout in the Classroom program, the students at Annawan are from a rural community, with more exposure to agriculture and the outdoors. This aquaculture program is just one of many opportunities for students in school-based agricultural education.

During an inspection by IDNR to review their aquaculture system, teacher Sarah Tarr enthusiastically promoted the value of this system, drawing a Venn diagram that included three different components: inquiry-based classroom and lab instruction, supervised agricultural experiences that offer immersive hands-on learning, and engagement with Future Farmers of America, which offers leadership, development and career opportunities. Despite this agricultural-centered model, Tarr emphasized that this program isn’t just for farm kids. “There’s enormous potential here in preparing students for future leadership roles in any field,” Tarr stressed.

The leadership component of this system became obvious during the aquaculture inspection. After introducing her classroom to IDNR Aquaculture Specialist Claire Snyder, the seven boys in Tarr’s class who are working in the aquaculture program took over the tour of their facility in the workshop behind the classroom. When tasked with picking a supervised agricultural experience, Tressin Jape, Maddox Thurston, Aaden VerStraete, Ellis Kraft, Danny Heston, Kasen Specht, and Cole Goodley looked to their love of fishing to inspire their choice to restart their school’s aquaculture program, which had been dormant for some time prior to their aquaculture inspection.

Though their system is running, with water flowing through a 500-gallon tank and recirculating through PVC pipes, there are no resident fish. Yet. That’s because the students are planning to stock the system with tilapia, a restricted species in Illinois, so the IDNR is on-site to inspect their system for any escapement risk or threats to native Illinois aquatic communities. Once added to the tank, the tilapia will stay strictly within their indoor enclosure and will not interact with any outdoor aquatic environment, being harvested for a tasty meal once they have fully grown.

The young men eagerly demonstrated the workings of their aquaculture system, talking about the challenges of starting up a system that had, until recently, been used as a storage container for school supplies. Their pride and excitement were evident as they talk about how they’ve had to teach themselves on the fly, troubleshooting water flow issues and working together to get their system working. They have clearly relished the opportunity to start something on their own, with “SEIZE OPPORTUNITY!” being the quote generated by the group after a brief huddle.

The most impressive part of the project? All seven are freshmen and have years ahead of them to continue to learn, develop and fine-tune their system under the guidance of teachers like Tarr.

As we look across the state and see similar success stories of young people raising fish in classrooms, the future of Illinois aquaculture looks bright indeed.

Note: The IDNR regulates all aquaculture facilities in the state of Illinois, with permits required for operation. Absolutely no stocking of fish into the wild is allowed without acquiring appropriate IDNR permissions. Click here for more information on Illinois aquaculture and fish importation, including contacts, regulations, permit requirements and approved species information.

Claire Snyder is a Natural Resources Specialist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She works within the Aquaculture and Aquatic Nuisance Species program, primarily providing support to the Aquaculture Program manager, overseeing aquatic life transport, aquaculture facilities and aquatic nuisance species concerns across the state. She has been with the department since 2020. She obtained her Master’s of Science in Zoology from Southern Illinois University.

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