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Volume 3, Number 4
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The Fishman Cometh

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The pioneer in a pensive moment: Bob Foor-Hogue and the aquaculture kingdom where he sometimes goes tank swimming. The fish-raising projects he and his students created at South Carroll High School became the model for Aquaculture in Action, a program that helps teachers around the state adapt his hands-on, problem-solving approach to science education. Says Foor-Hogue, "My students have done extraordinary things." Photograph by Michael W. Fincham

The Pioneer
Bob Foor-Hogue at the South Carroll High School aquaculture classroom – by Michael W. Fincham

In 1990, a teacher named Bob Foor-Hogue created his first fish tank system by setting up several 55-gallon barrels in the back of his second-floor chemistry classroom at South Carroll High School. One barrel held lava rocks for a primitive filter and the others held tilapia, a fish popular with professional aquaculture operators.

Aquaculture, he immediately discovered, was constant problem solving. After he flooded the first floor classrooms below him several times, his school administrators solved that problem for him by moving his operation to a greenhouse out back. When he quickly filled up the greenhouse with tank systems, they gave him a huge shed at the back of the school that was once used for teaching tractor repair to Carroll County students. He and his students knocked out a wall, built a glass-walled classroom along one side, and then proceeded to fill up their new space with more fish tanks.

Foor-Hogue was not the first to bring fish into Maryland high schools – the Maryland Department of Agriculture had tried sending tanks and tilapia to a number of vocational ag teachers as a way to popularize aquaculture – but he was, it seems, the first to use aquaculture as a tool for teaching science.

It began when he created a course called Science Research. The core concept was project-based science and the project he chose was aquaculture. The first fish he tried was tilapia, because it was adaptable and widely available from professional aquaculture operations that raised the fish for the supermarket trade. His long-term goal, however, was to raise striped bass – not to sell them, but to release them back into the Chesapeake Bay.

As a younger man, Foor-Hogue saw firsthand the great declines in the Chesapeake ecosystem. To earn money for college, he and his brothers worked as commercial crabbers out of Kent Island. Several days after Tropical Storm Agnes dumped record rainfalls throughout the Chesapeake watershed in 1972, he motored out to check on his crab pots, timing his trip for slack tide when the water starts to clear. At low tide he usually had to turn his motor off because the grass beds were so thick. But now he peered down and saw no grass beds. He motored three miles south along Kent Island and never had to cut his motor. There were no seagrasses.

It was a moment he never forgot. During the next two decades, he saw seagrasses and oysters nearly disappear and striped bass decline, leading to a controversial moratorium on the catching and selling of the fish in Maryland. When he dove into aquaculture, he went in deep, as he always does, because it was personal. He wanted to raise striped bass to re-release them into the Bay.

Project-based science works on a need-to-know basis, according to Foor-Hogue.

If his students bought into a project like restoring the Chesapeake Bay, they might also buy into raising striped bass. If they did, what would they need to know?

How do you keep fish tanks up and running, water clean and oxygenated, fish healthy and growing? How do you feed the fish, measure their growth and get them back in the water alive? His students would have to solve a lot of problems, and the answers would come from biology, ecology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and computer science.

In theory, his project-based science was an advanced course, building on what students have already learned in traditional high school courses. In practice, Foor-Hogue is not a huge fan of most of those courses, despite years teaching biology and chemistry, both mainstream science and Advanced Placement science, the high-prestige courses that are supposed to help students boost their college prospects.

Are all these AP courses the answer the country is looking for? Do they bode well for turning out more American scientists? Not according to Foor-Hogue. Memory work for test taking, he calls them. "The beauty and elegance of science get lost in all the facts," he says. As a result a lot of potential scientists may also be lost. "We may produce people who are more literate," he argues, "but we are not going to produce many scientists with AP."

Science, for Foor-Hogue, is not facts – you can look those up. Science is problem solving. That's what makes it personal for his students. "It's not how much you memorize," he told them, "but how you are able to use what you've learned." Getting his own aquaculture operation up and running, for example, was a project in itself, and his students went to work looking up facts and formulas and, piece by piece, solving most of his technical problems.

And they helped find money. Once they bought into his schemes and dreams, he put them to work writing funding proposals so they could afford even more tanks and pumps and piping. Over the last decade, the school has landed 50 grants, he says, many of them written by his students.

How much of this student buy-in came from his projects? And how much from his personality? With his passion and his peculiarities, Foor-Hogue was always popular with students. How many teachers came to class dressed like Einstein? Or like an alchemist? Or like a man named Nobel who wanted to invent dynamite. He wore his hair, now graying, in a long pony tail. He sometimes wore a beard and always had a bushy moustache. Then he added an earring.

When students – and teachers – talked about him, the first sentence that popped out of their mouths was: "Foor-Hogue is crazy." He was, after all, known to go swimming in his fish tanks. How many teachers tried that?

There was, of course, more than madness to his method. He kept his hair long just to irritate people, he says, but the rest of his act was aimed at keeping everybody alert in their seats. "The whole thing about the nutty professor has always worked to my advantage," he admits. "I never want to be equated as an average teacher." And the way to be well above average was to have fun. "When I think of my best teachers, they challenged me," he says, "but they also made education fun."

With his growing aquaculture empire, Foor-Hogue was becoming famous in the teaching community. He won honors like Maryland Science Teacher of the Year, the Presidential Award for Excellence, the Milliken Foundation National Educator Award.

Had he discovered, by accident or design, the secret to successful science teaching?

Foor-Hogue was invited to give dozens of presentations, and teachers began dropping by for site visits. One of them was Adam Frederick, a young biology teacher at nearby Walkersville High School.

Erin Gu inspects the fish at Wootton High School. Students in Maryland schools are trying to raise striped bass, shad, yellow perch, bluegill, sunfish and rainbow trout. The fish come from hatcheries run by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Photograph by Michael W. Fincham

Eri Gu at Wootton High School scooping up some fish from an aquaculture tank - by Michael W. Fincham

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