Innovation in Action: 6th Grade Students from Cherrelyn Elementary School Release Trout into South Platte River
Paul Whitaker

When you bring together educators and staff that are collaborative, creative, and committed to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) education, the results can be described as innovative, authentic, and awe-inspiring. And thanks to the dedication of Kirk Benson (STEAM Specialist), Naomi Smith (6th Grade Teacher), Chad Rail (PE Teacher), and Chris Sorley (Head Custodian), that’s exactly the kind of learning experience the 6th grade students had at Cherrelyn Elementary this year! 

In collaboration with Trout Unlimited Colorado, the Carson Nature Center and Platte Park, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, students had the unique opportunity to learn about Colorado's ecology and the importance of sustaining our natural environments through a STEAM-aligned project focused on raising trout in preparation for release into the wild. Thanks to the tremendous support from Trout Unlimited Colorado, students were able to raise trout from egg to juvenile over a period of months, frequently testing the water to ensure it was a healthy environment, documenting fish growth and development in detailed logs, and learning more about trout life cycles and biology. 

When asked about the impact of having a fish tank full of trout for all to see and the additional responsibility of caring for over 100 trout, Kirk Benson said, “the impact on the school in general was noticeable, and our younger students were engaged and frequently wanting to help out with the trout to feed, add water, and so on.” He adds, “Kindergarten and first graders drew artworks to decorate our tank while the eggs were hatching, and there were so many connections all around! The impact on my older students who work more closely with the trout was immense. They were able to not only raise living things, but learned in a real and authentic way and connected the learning to local waterways.”

Perhaps the most exciting event throughout this whole experience arrived on April 24th, 2023, when the 6th grade students, who for months cared for and raised all the trout, had the opportunity to release them into the wild!

Students, teachers, and members of Trout Unlimited Colorado carefully transferred the fish from the tank to specially designed buckets and made their way down to the Carson Nature Center and Platte Park, located right on the South Platte River just east of Chatfield Reservoir. From there, students learned more about the South Platte River area (thanks to the guides from Carson Nature Center), including how it has changed over time and the ecological importance of the river. 

And then came the best part… the students took a short hike down to a small landing area on the river, and they prepared the fish for release into the South Platte! After a few final water measurements to ensure a safe and successful release, students began to introduce the trout into the wild. The experience was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Think about it… how many people can say they raised rainbow trout from eggs and released them into the wild?

"It was amazing- I want to do something like this for my career," said one of the students, reflecting on the experience. 

Another student shared, "I was excited to see how the trout instantly acted like wild fish!" 

The day was not limited to releasing trout, as the students also had a chance to explore other aspects of the South Platte River ecology, including a chance to catch and learn more about crayfish. They also learned about the history of the South Platte River area, including how naturally occurring weathering events such as erosion shaped the area.

It was a day filled with innovative and authentic learning. Students made so many real connections, including a deeper understanding and appreciation for the incredible and dynamic landscapes that surround us in Colorado. 

When asked about this experience as a whole, one student shared, “I was able to learn that the fish need the right temperature for them to live. A highlight for me was how we needed to clean the tank, take the temperature, and find the pH level to keep the fish alive. The most rewarding part was getting to take care of the fish.”

Another student shared, “I learned that  when you put trout in water, you have to do it gently, a couple at a time, and find the right temperature.  One highlight was we were able to find and hold  macroinvertebrates in the pond on the field trip. The most rewarding part was releasing the trout in the river”

Ever the ongoing learner himself, even Mr. Benson took a moment to share his reflection on the experience. “This experience allowed me to learn alongside my students. It was a program I was new to this year, and I was equally as engaged in it as my students. It reiterated for me the incredible impact of our SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture and Green Energy) Career and Technical Education program, and the importance of engaging in outdoor learning experiences with our students. The program gave me and my students opportunities to share publicly about our learning as well, as a few six graders presented to the Board of Education. I was also able to co-present to Colorado Trout Unlimited. Both experiences allowed us to authentically engage with the wider audience that we are often hoping to share our learning with in the classroom.

The project allowed the students to spend quality time in nature and connect with the environment in a meaningful way. The students not only gained a deeper understanding of Colorado's ecology but also developed valuable skills in collaboration, scientific inquiry, and environmental stewardship.”

Truly, this was an incredible learning experience for everyone involved. And thanks to the dedication of educators, staff, and organizations like Kirk Benson, Naomi Smith, Chad Rail, Chris Sorley, and Colorado Trout Unlimited, students at Cherrelyn Elementary had a chance to experience true innovation in action!

Innovation in Action is a periodic column designed to highlight innovative practices happening in our district. If you are interested in submitting a story to be highlighted in a future “Innovation in Action” column, or if you have questions, please contact Paul Whitaker.