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The Fishman Cometh

Photograph: Fish meets student. Frederick introduces a bluegill to Erin Gu, one of the science students at Wootton High School responsible for keeping two dozen fish alive and healthy. Photograph by Michael W. Fincham.


Scientific Literacy
in the 21st Century

In Their Own Words

Partners in Science

Summer Students on the Bay

Mud Unearths Scientist Within

How Old Is That Crab?

This Issue's Videos:
A Fish Story
Fish meets student. Frederick introduces a bluegill to Erin Gu. By Michael W. Fincham.
Hooking Students on Science

By Michael W. Fincham

When Adam Frederick leaves home at 5:30 a.m., it's so dark he can't see the Cactoctin mountains humped up to the west. From Woodsboro, Maryland, up on the northern edge of the state, 20 miles below Pennsylvania, he drives south and east past farms, small towns and the new suburbs now spreading out through the rolling October countryside of the state's central plateau. He's got a large chunk of the state to cover before he comes home tonight. In his work year, this is the longest day.

Seventy miles later the sun is up when he pulls into a mega mall on the outskirts of Annapolis and switches into a gray van driven by Jackie Takacs, one of his co-workers in the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program. Soon they are arcing across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, squinting into the southeastern light to see if any watermen are out fishing for late season crabs or early season oysters. Heading south along route 50, they pass more farms, the large corn and soybean farms of the mostly flat middle Eastern Shore of Maryland. At Cambridge they cross the mile-wide Choptank River, one of the major spawning rivers in the Bay for striped bass.

Their job today is to haul young striped bass fingerlings back across the Bay and deliver them to six high schools scattered across north central Maryland. Frederick calls their project Aquaculture in Action, and he began it in 1997, soon after he came to work for Sea Grant as an Education Specialist. The plan behind the project: students will raise the fish in their classrooms, release them back in the Bay at the end of the school year – and learn a lot of science in the process. If the students learn well, the fish make it through the school year alive.

Frederick is gambling with fish by betting on Maryland students – and he's looking at some long odds. According to studies by the National Science Board, not many American students are taking science seriously. The U.S. now ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students majoring in science, and less than half the students now enrolled in college science classes are native born. For critics like Fareed Zakaria, writing in The Washington Post, all these trends add up to one truth: "Americans don't do science anymore."

Adam Frederick still does science, however, and he is using these striped bass to test a hypothesis about American schools. He claims American students can still do science and do it well – if they, like working scientists, are presented with real problems to solve and questions to answer.

Three miles east of Cambridge, Takacs swings a sharp right onto the grounds of the Horn Point Laboratory, an 800-acre site of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) that sits on a bluff above the Choptank River. Driving down the arrow-straight, tree-lined entrance lane, they pass offices, research buildings, and seagrass ponds, then park next to a long, low-lying metal building with a greenhouse running along one side. This is the laboratory's finfish hatchery and the birthplace of Frederick's would-be pedagogical fingerlings.

The U.S. now ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students majoring in science.

Inside Frederick makes a quick tour of three large blue 400-gallon tanks, peering down at tiny stripers alternately gliding and darting about their small watery worlds, the only worlds they've ever known. "Hey, they look good. They're pretty," he tells Andy Lazur, the hatchery operator. With 11 tanks in all, Lazur's hatchery kingdom looks like a cross between a big garage and a small barn. It is wet underfoot, and noisy with the constant sibilation of running water and hissing compressors and murmuring pumps – all the godlike, but man-made machinery necessary to create these worlds and keep them running.

With his wiry frame Frederick has a hefty, low-end voice, the kind that could sell well on television and radio – and he has clearly sold his partners on this project. Tall, southern and soft spoken with a Ph.D. in finfish aquaculture, Lazur has agreed to release 150 of his fish into the keeping of high school students. Takacs is already hustling up fish nets and plastic bags and cardboard boxes, the tools of the day. She's ready to push fish out the door and start chauffeuring them around the state.

The fish in these tanks are the offshoots of some big stripers who swam up the Choptank the previous spring – only to find Lazur and his assistants waiting for them in a small open boat. Hot to spawn and head back out to the mainstem and the ocean beyond, the stripers were, instead, stunned by a literal bolt out of the blue. Lazur swung a short boom out from the boat, lowered several dangling electrodes into the water and unleashed lightning shocks strong enough to knock any passing stripers senseless and send them floating to the surface.

Back at the hatchery, Lazur would pick out stunned males and females who are already leaking sperm and eggs, then revive their sex drives with hormone injections. With hatchery spawning, the readiness is all. When they're back in the mood, Lazur turns his revved-up captives loose in a small, warmed-up tank, usually two males with one larger female, and waits to see what happens. The result: a scene that's pretty close to – and perhaps even better than – the belly-rubbing frenzy the stripers were looking for out there in the Choptank. And voila! – two days later, lots of new fish larvae are floating in the tank. These fish-love sessions work better than Mother Nature's, begetting more larvae per adult than any wild spawning in the river would.

For the small fry, early life in a hatchery tank, while not as scenic or adventuresome as life in the river, is certainly safer and healthier. No predators around to gulp down little larvae; instead, leaning over them, the towering figure of Lazur, first cause and prime mover in their brief lives, stopping to feed them and keep their world bubbling along with clean, waste-free, oxygen-rich water.

Their world suddenly gets smaller as Frederick, taking dead aim, stabs a long-handled fish net down at a school of stripers sliding around the bottom. He hoists the dripping net and stares at it intently. "There are a couple red marks on a few of them around the gill," he tells Takacs. They both count fish aloud as they scoop 25 fingerlings into water-filled plastic bags. This is how the fish will travel the state, floating in bags and stored in styrofoam boxes and plastic coolers, the same kind you fill with ice in the summer to chill a six pack or carry home a legal-size, freshly-caught striper.

The problem with trucking fish in bags is keeping them alive, and the solutions are oxygen, temperature and timing. Before sealing the fish bags, Frederick opens the valve on an oxygen tank and pumps in plenty of air, turning each fish bag into a bulging fish balloon with enough oxygen to keep 25 fingerlings alive through a long day. That's a taste of the problems teachers and students will face back at their schools.

Frederick calls his approach project-based science, but it's also called problem-solving science. To come up with solutions, students and teachers will have to tackle a slew of research questions just as Lazur and other working scientists do in commercial hatcheries and university labs around the country. That's a lot to handle for teachers and students who supposedly don't do much science anymore.

Takacs slides the last cooler into her big grey Odyssey van and Frederick slams the rear door down. By 9:30, they are back on the road and Lazur's little stripers are headed north with no notion of what lies ahead. Frederick, however, knows what's at stake. He's betting some of his reputation and all of Lazur's striped bass to test a hypothesis about how much high school teachers and students can handle. If the experiment works, the fish live – and students learn more science. If it doesn't, a lot of fish start dying in high schools all around the state.


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