Something's fishy in Schroon Lake's one and only school, and it's a source of pride.
Teachers and students in the science department have fashioned tubes, bubblers and beakers into a 300-gallon, self-sustaining aquatic ecosystem where rainbow trout swim about in all-natural filtering units filled with lake water, and hydroponic plants grow in water from the trout tank.
Select students work with teachers outside of their normal class schedules to keep the system operating. Mat Riddle, who teaches seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade science, and Cookie Barker, biology and chemistry teacher, are team partners. Both are members of the Schroon Lake Central School Teachers Association.
The project began last spring when the crew picked up 566 fry from the Crown Point hatchery in the Adirondacks and placed them in a small hatchery tank at the school. A problem early on turned into another level of learning: An uncoated aluminum pipe used as part of the cooling system was corroding. Barker learned aluminum affects fish neurologically. The pipe was coated and is now safe.
"Next we'll analyze the fish and see where (the aluminum) accumulated in the body," said Barker, who has studied polar bears in Manitoba and mountain gorilla in Rwanda. The teachers are working to get proper equipment and expertise to do that.
Last summer, construction began on the tub maturation tank. Trout are a cold water fish that prefer temperatures in the 50s, so cooling was essential. Riddle, a plumber nicknamed "MacGyver," is the mastermind of this ecosystem. He made a chilling unit out of the guts of a minifridge —- a recycling coup that saved several thousand dollars. He also insulated the maturation tank.
The teachers noted the supportive role the school's custodial staff play in the project. When Hurricane Irene snuffed electrical power, they put a battery-powered bubbler in the tank.
Once the trout grew to fingerling size, they were transferred to the tub maturation tank. It was built with money donated by local businesses, individuals and a $3,000 grant from the Campfire Conservation Club, Riddle said.
Water from the tank is pumped to trays of plants, and the plants naturally filter the water before it goes back into the tank. Most tanks require filters with disposable cartridges. Fish waste first filtered through biological filters grows healthy bacteria that, in turn, fertilizes the plants.
The project is designed to develop students' skills of analysis, inquiry and design through active laboratory work — all important to meeting state science standards. Aside from the obvious benefits of students being able to study fish, aquatic systems and recycling through hands-on science, Barker said the project is applicable to larger world views as well.
"The number of fishermen is declining," she said, and the town feels the affects of that on the economy. Bringing awareness of an important local species, as well as the sport of fishing, is an additional goal.
Students, said Riddle, "will also start to become better stewards of the environment."
The fish were scheduled to be tagged and released in May, in accordance with the state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations.
Meanwhile, the trout are fed three times a day with pellets made from high protein and appropriate fats students grind up.
"They're the most cared for trout in the world," Riddle said.