Fifth-graders at Lake Elmo Elementary School are learning about watersheds by raising hundreds of baby fish.
When 500 eggs the size of orange pinheads arrived at their classroom a few months ago, 10-year-old Jordan Kimlinger said she thought the whole project was going to be boring.
Had she known anything about fish before this?
"I didn't know there was trout, so, no," she said. "I've been really into science, and I think this is a very good science experiment."
She and other students learned to check the pH level of the water in their 75-gallon fish tank. Some baby fish have died since December. For fun, the students tried to name all 480 survivors.
"But we can't keep them straight," admitted one.
Classmate Liam Butler said his favorite is called Hunchback because it looks more like a seahorse than a normal baby fish. He starts each day checking on the fish.
"I watch the trout for like a couple of minutes, and then I watch them eat, because when we go in, they get their food, and it's really fun to see," he said. "They run into each other, they do a bunch of fun stuff, play in the bubbles." Butler, 11, said basketball is still his passion, but this fish project helped him see that he loves nature too.
"We've learned a lot about the water supply and groundwater," he said. "And what the trout need to be happy and grow. And they need like really cold water."
Teacher Emily Heilhecker said she applied for a grant from the nonprofit Minnesota Trout Unlimited to get her students more interested in the environment.
"Whether they think they like fish or fishing, or they take an interest in global warming, or they take an interest in the weather and how that affects things," she said. "I want to inspire the students. We compare it to what happens if we put salt on the road, when it snows. What happens to the salt when things melt? And things like that."
Her school is only one of 18 other public schools participating in watershed learning.
"They have loved it from Day One," she said. "And they notice the teeniest, tiniest changes long before I do ... They check everything, every day, and want to know more."
Benji Kohn, education coordinator for Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said the students didn't know much about watersheds at first. "Now they know what a watershed is," he said. "They know what aquifers are, and where groundwater is. And where their water comes from."
The goal, he said, is to get kids to care about rivers and streams as adults.
"They're going to release these fish in the spring here, into the Vermillion River," he said. "It's a big deal for them. They've worked all winter to raise these fish, get 'em up to fingerling size, and then will release them into the wild."
And he said, who knows? Maybe one of them will grow up to become a scientist.