Students gush over environmental project | TahoeDailyTribune.com
Matthew Renda
Tahoe Daily Tribune

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Students gush over environmental project

Provided to the TribuneFifth-graders in Bob Comlossy's class at the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School participate in the Disney Planet Challenge and work to restore native fish populations in local streams.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – It is not difficult to distinguish which aspect of the Disney Planet Challenge fifth-graders at the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School are most enthusiastic about – the potential to go to Disneyland or restoring native fish populations in local streams.

It’s the fish. No, really.

“Going to Disneyland would be awesome,” said fifth-grade student Max Morgan. “But the main part of this project is helping the environment.”

Fifth-graders in Bob Comlossy’s class were eager to talk about their environmental improvement project created in association with the Disney Planet Challenge, a nationwide competition that encourages project-based learning in classrooms and awards the class with the best project a trip to Disneyland.

Comlossey and his students interviewed numerous organizations and agencies before selecting a project administered by the U.S. Forest Service and a local nonprofit Caltrout.

The project, named “It’s a Small Fish After All” by the students, focuses on reintroducing native non-game minnows into Tahoe-basin streams. The environmental improvement program entails repopulating the native Mountain Whitefish and Speckled Dace by raising them in a hatchery-style aquarium provided by the U.S. Forest Service, improving stream habitat out in the field and reintroducing the small fish into the improved stream ecology. The young students also advocate for the project, educating others about the importance of the minnows in maintaining ecological balance.

“It means a lot,” said student Gabi Rosalez. “The non-native fish have been eating these minnows and their numbers are down. By removing non-native invasive plant species from the streams we give these fish a better chance to survive.”

Student Zane Brady said the project is important as part of an overall effort to reintroduce the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout into Lake Tahoe.

“We can’t save the Lahontan Cutthroat Trouts without saving the fish they eat for survival,” said Brady. “Without these minnows the whole local food web would collapse.”

Student Bailee Salmon said the Speckled Dace serve another important ecological function – they consume algae.

“The Speckled Dace is a filter fish,” she explained. “They eat algae off the rocks, which is important because too much algae in Lake Tahoe makes the lake look not as pretty. Without the Speckled Dace, the algae would overpopulate the lake and streams.”

The students use an aquarium to foster an environment where minnows will hopefully spawn.

The students must check the aquarium daily, feeding the fish, checking temperatures and pH levels. As the project proceeds they will continue to alter the environmental conditions of the tank hoping to simulate a gradual increase in temperature which they hope will make the fish think spring is coming causing them to procreate.

In order to collect the necessary fish for the aquarium, the students took a field trip to Taylor Creek, and while some helped the U.S. Forest Service remove invasive plant species, others watched as the Forest Service used an electrocution device to collect Speckled Dace, which were then transferred to the classroom aquarium.

“Instead of a fishing pole, the ranger used an electric shocker,” said student Freeman George. “The fish would swim in between these two electric devices and get stunned and the ranger would scoop them up with a net.”

Along with ecological field experience, the fifth-grade children have taken their cause to local radio stations, meeting with California senate representatives and meeting with governing board members from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

“We went to Sacramento and spoke to a senator’s aide,” said student Temugen Enkhbayar. “We wanted the senate to set aside money for the fish, but the aide explained there were other important things and they couldn’t afford to include this project in the budget.”

“We also met with Norma Santiago, (vice-chair of the TRPA governing board and El Dorado County Supervisor),” said Salmon. “She was really into it and planned to have a meeting about the project.”

“My favorite part of the project is all the interviews,” said Shannen Bayuga. “Me and Lacey got to go on the radio and answered questions. I love spreading the word and letting all the people in Lake Tahoe know about the importance of these fish.”

Comlossy said the project-based learning is a good way to sharpen various learning skills.

“It’s not only science application,” he said. “They’ve had to compile a portfolio explaining the project. So they’ve had to really focus on language arts – reading, writing, speaking and listening.”

“They also learned what it’s like to work under crunch time,” continued Comlossy, referring to deadline for portfolio submission, a necessary step if the class is to be eligible for a trip to Disneyland.

“This is the hardest I’ve ever worked on a project,” said Salmon. “But, it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been here in the classroom, sometimes on weekends, but I get to hang out with my friends and help the environment.”

The children won’t know until April or May if they’ve won the trip, but in the meantime they are planning on how to continue the project.

“We’re going to teach the fourth-graders all about the project, so the can keep up the good work next year,” said Garret Hartley. “People come to Lake Tahoe because of the beautiful environment. We have to take care of it.”