Back in the spring of 2010, I visited the Penn Cambria Middle School in Gallitzin to see the results of a "Trout in the Classroom" project conducted by a dedicated group of sixth-grade students under the direction of science teacher Ben Watt.
Trout in the Classroom is a national environmental education program designed to teach students from grades three to twelve about coldwater conservation by raising brook trout from eggs to fingerlings right in their classroom. This five-month endeavor provides the students with valuable hands-on experience with biology, chemistry, physics and other sciences during the course of the project.
The tank full of little trout wasn't the only hands-on exhibit in Watt's classroom, the walls of which were lined several other aquariums and terrariums housing an assortment of fish, frogs, snakes and other interesting creatures for the kids to take care of. Along one wall, however, were several incubators full of pheasant and quail eggs that would be hatching soon. These would play an integral role in another project Watt had in mind.
As we walked back to the school lobby at the end of my tour, he showed me a small outdoor courtyard in the middle of the school, about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long with a few shrubs along the walls here and there. Watt told me he thought this unused space would be a great place to raise some of the young pheasants his students hatched in their classroom incubators, and he was going to seek permission to implement the project. Principal Jeff Baird was an easy sell. "I'm an avid sportsman," Baird said, "so I thought it was a great idea and told Ben to make it happen."
And make it happen he did. Because the courtyard was completely enclosed, the only thing that needed to be done was to install a sturdy net above it to keep the pheasants in and keep hawks, owls and other potential predators out. Watt was also able to secure a donation from a local chapter of Safari Club International to provide the startup funds for the project.
When the pheasant eggs hatched last spring, the young birds were kept in a brooder in the classroom where the students fed and watered them and cleaned the cages. By the end of the school year, the young pheasants were released into the courtyard. The birds did quite well in their new environment over the summer and required little maintenance other than food and water. When the students returned to start the new school year a few weeks ago, they looked quite different from the half-grown ones they had last seen. The male birds now sported the long tails and magnificent plumage so characteristic of ring-necked pheasants.
Superintendent Mary Beth Whited has also been supportive of the project and the unique educational opportunities it offers. "It's exciting and has worked out better than expected," Whited said. "All learning has to be connected to the student. That is learning that has real impact. And that is what this program is doing for our sixth-graders and many other students As a school district in western Pennsylvania, we must teach our students about our impact on the environment."
Watt said he considered this year to be a test program, and the success it experienced has prompted him to attempt a more ambitious effort next year. Most of this year's crop of pheasants will be released at a local sportsmen's club in time for the youth pheasant hunt on October 8. He plans to keep at least two pairs of males and females as brood stock for next spring. Watt hopes those hens will produce about 50 eggs with an ultimate goal of growing at least 25 pheasants to maturity to be released next fall. The Safari Club has again pledged funding, so the project will not cost the school district any additional money.