You wouldn’t know it driving through the placid streets of Poland, Maine, but the area’s elementary schools are becoming hotspots for STEM education thanks to an engaging, hands-on ecology curriculum called Brookie Buddies.
Funded by Poland Spring® Brand Natural Spring Water as part of its goal of fostering young water stewards, inspired by Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom program, and first developed in 2007 with the Portland Water District, Brookie Buddies is a half-year-long program that gives kids a tankful of trout to grow, learn about, and eventually release in a ceremony each May. (Maine is the perfect place for this program to take root because it contains an estimated 97% of trout habitat.)
Over four months each school year, fifth graders in elementary schools across Maine monitor TTUs (total thermal units), PH, water quality, and track the fingerlings’ mortality rates. Daniella Mason, a fifth-grade teacher at the Poland Community School, says, “It’s important to monitor the tanks daily and report out to the whole class” so everyone knows how their fish are doing.
“The kids are really invested in the success of the program.” Mason goes on to say that the program gives teachers a unique opportunity to get kids interested in trout life cycles and critical issues like water usage and conservation, overfishing, and pollution.
“What we’re finding is that if kids develop an interest in science from a very early age, they’ll follow that path going forward… If kids don’t develop math and science skills by around fifth or sixth grade, they may be less likely to follow that path later,” says Heather Printup, a community relations manager at Poland Spring, who helped bring the program to participating schools.
One Brookie Buddies graduate, Sydney Hudson, now a sophomore at Poland Regional High School, says the work she did as part of the program has stuck with her and helped spark an interest in science. “I liked it because it’s more hands-on,” she says. “I looked forward to class because we got to see the trout grow — I liked being able to see that happen.”
Hudson also adds that she’s more concerned about water pollution than she was before the program. “You can’t just litter or throw stuff in the water because it affects the fishes’ ecosystem.” Another Brookie Buddies graduate, Liz Tibbetts, echoes this concern: “If you’re around a watershed, every chemical or pollutant you put in your yard will eventually end up in the local water table.”
The program also teaches kids how to monitor Maine’s rivers’ and streams’ water quality using some of the same processes the Poland Spring® brand uses, like biomonitoring. “Downstream from our spring sites, it’s just as important that we maintain a healthy ecosystem. Biomonitoring plays a huge part in making sure the ecosystem is intact,” Poland Spring natural resource supervisor Mark Laplante explains.
As part of the Brookie Buddies program, kids learn that macroinvertebrates (otherwise known as bugs) tell a story about the health of the water. How trout fare after their release depends on the health of the whole ecosystem, bugs especially, because as top predators in their environment, trout consume the entire food chain below them.
At the end of their four-month curriculum, the students gather behind the Poland Fire Rescue Department for the trout release. Each student is given a cup to cradle, ladles in some water and then places a tiny brown trout into their short-term home.
The children walk down a short dirt path to Waterhouse Brook reservoir and kneel by the stream to release their fry into the wild. A teacher points out that the trout are going to have to learn to swim against the current, and after introducing the fry to the wild, they disperse quickly, but a few linger, bravely fighting the stream.
As the day winds down, Poland Spring staff lead a trout-centered quiz, Trout Trivia, asking kids questions about Maine’s water cycle and ecology. Children go home knowing a little more about their world. As grad Liz Tibbetts says, “When you’re a fifth grader, it’s huge to be able to get outside and learn, hands-on.”