Families and staff from Fletcher Elementary School partnered with the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain on May 11 to take on the role of environmental stewards in support of the threatened lake sturgeon. 

During a virtual science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) evening event, participants from the school connected virtually with an environmental educator from ECHO to learn about the monstrous creatures of the deep and some unconventional efforts being used to protect and rehabilitate the species’s population. The evening’s event was coined, Fish Assist.

“The lake sturgeon is the coolest fish ever,” third grader William Nadeau said. “It can get really, really big and it looks just like a dinosaur. I was very disappointed to learn about how it is threatened and how people are doing things that could result in it not being around forever.”

Lake sturgeon are listed as threatened in 19 of the 20 states in which they live, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are freshwater fish living in North America from the Hudson Bay through the Mississippi River drainage. Lake sturgeon can live for up to 150 years and grow to be more than nine feet in length and weigh 300 pounds. Over-harvesting and a loss of habitat as a result of the creation of dams are the primary reasons for the species’ declining population. Like its prehistoric ancestors, the lake sturgeon’s rows of spiny armored plates called scutes resemble dinosaurs from long ago. The species lives in Vermont in Lake Champlain and several rivers including the Winooski, Missisquoi, Lamoille and Otter Creek.

“I think it’s really important to learn about the impact we have on the environment and the creatures that depend on it,” Nadeau said. “When we learn about how our actions affect animals we can do things to change the negative impact and protect and save them.”

Prior to the event, students learned about the lake sturgeon through readings and videos in their classrooms, including a virtual visit to the sturgeon tank at ECHO. They were sent home with an engineering activity kit that they used during the event.

“After we learned more about the lake sturgeon, we were challenged to use a variety of materials like a balloon and popsicle sticks to create a fish cannon that could help a lake sturgeon make its way over a dam and go upriver to spawn,” Nadeau said. “Dams made by humans sometimes prevent them from getting upstream and that is reducing their population.”

While the fish cannons created by students are not exactly like those used in real life, the concept is similar. Several supports, such as fish ladders – tiered layers of “stairs” that help sturgeon get over a dam – and small water-powered chutes, are all being used to ease the migration. Fletcher teachers facilitated virtual breakout sessions with students as they used their materials in a variety of ways to design and share their fish cannons.

Fletcher families have a very special connection to the lake sturgeon. When ECHO added lake sturgeon to their aquarium collection, they were transported across the country from the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute in Milwaukee to the ECHO Leahy Center by Fletcher resident Bob Lesnikoski.

“Events like this really empower our students to think responsibly about their own actions and how those behaviors impact the natural world,” second grade teacher Kathleen Pellegrino said. “For most of our students, this opportunity not only introduced a new and exciting animal to their learning, but it also offered an opportunity for students to be creative problem-solvers, to create solutions that might fail and then to improve upon those. That’s the beauty of the engineering design process.”

“It’s like that old saying, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” Nadeua said. “The engineering design process is a chance to make mistakes and learn from them. My fish cannon design didn’t work at first, but I improved it and then it was great.”

In addition to the engineering design kit students used to support sturgeon migration, students also received a butterfly migration kit to use following the event. The event and kits were funded in part by a grant from ECHO.

“One of the greatest privileges of teaching is to help students see and understand the world beyond the four walls of the classroom,” third grade teacher Tracey Godin said. “Particularly during the past year, we’ve learned to reimagine our use of technology in new and exciting ways, including events like this one, that become easily accessible to families right from their living rooms.”

“I learned so much from this experience, Nadeau said. “I learned that I can help these amazing creatures to survive and that you’re never too young to be an engineer who lends a hand.”

Christopher Dodge is the Principal of Fletcher Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @FletcherFalcon.

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