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Curriculum Seeks To Hook Students Into Aquaculture Careers

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SOUTH BEND, WASH.--Steven Lazelle shuts down a bubbling aerator to give a visitor a clear view of the pale fish milling about in the 1,000-gallon tank below.

The foot-long tilapia swirling in the artificial current will one day serve as the entree at a community fish fry in this small town on Willapa Bay.

But for now, these African fish are the focus of an unusual curriculum designed to provide students with the scientific background to pursue careers in aquaculture, a billion-dollar global industry that the U.S. Agriculture Department expects will employ increasing numbers of college-educated managers and high-school-educated technicians in coming years.

Mr. Lazelle, whose formal training is in earth science, is one of a small but growing number of teachers across the country who are using an aquaculture curriculum to lure students into learning the mathematics and science needed to be successful fish farmers.

A few feet below the wooden deck where the tanks are mounted, 25 aquariums serve as habitat for younger, solitary tilapia, though the occasional goldfish or Siamese fighting fish can be seen flashing about here and there.

Each of the fish has been carefully tended by one of Mr. Lazelle's students at South Bend High School, who are immersing themselves in the complex web of knowledge needed to successfully raise these creatures for the commercial market.

"If we're talking about biology, we're talking a lot of anatomy and reproduction,'' he says. "You could also incorporate some earth and physical science. And you get a lot of chemistry in there with water analysis.''

Learning To Adapt

Residents of South Bend, two hours southwest of Seattle in the heart of timber country, depend on the tidal Willapa River that parallels the city's main street for much of their livelihood.

Mounds of oyster shells piled as high as houses flank the road, and a sign at the city limits informs visitors that they have arrived in the "Oyster Capital of the World.''

"This is the cleanest estuary in the lower 48 states,'' Mr. Lazelle proudly states.

Not surprising, the children of South Bend have long relied on fishing--and oystering in family beds--for recreation and to supplement their income. Youngsters here often go on to work in the local shellfish industry, although few have ever received formal training in marine science.

Today, the industry that plays such a major role in the life of the community may be endangered by changes that have begun to appear in the natural fabric that supports South Bend and similar coastal communities here.

The annual runs of salmon up the nearby Columbia and other rivers of the region are much reduced from their levels earlier in the century, and many worry that runoff and pollution from logging operations could someday endanger oyster harvests.

The potential threats to natural resources are a major reason that some observers believe that aquaculture may be the wave of the future for students here and in other areas that have relied on the fishing industry.

A Fast-Growing Industry

A recent Agriculture Department report indicates that while per-capita consumption of seafood in the United States has fallen from 16.2 pounds in 1987 to 14.9 pounds in 1991, the percentage of farm-raised seafood eaten every year continues to grow rapidly.

The report notes that fish farming has increased because environmental deterioration, overfishing, and other stresses have caused many wild stocks of both freshwater and marine fish to decline below the levels that can sustain commercial fishing.

Aquaculture, therefore, "is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, not only in the United States,'' says Ron Buckhalt, a spokesman for the private National Council for Agriculture Education, which developed the curriculum with funding from the Agriculture Department.

"And we're importing billions of dollars worth of seafood from abroad every year,'' Mr. Buckhalt adds. "That shrimp you ate last week was probably from a pond in Indonesia.''

Similarly, stocks of catfish, trout, and salmon, all threatened in the wild, are increasingly becoming staples of the aquaculture industry, as are the tilapia that Mr. Lazelle's students are raising.

The aquaculture industry in the United States, accordingly, is expected to grow by as much as 10 percent annually as demand for products increases, creating a large number of jobs in the field.

And while formal aquaculture programs have been available at the college level to prepare students to work in the industry, they did not exist for high school students until very recently, Mr. Buckhalt says.

A Potential Job Market

But several years ago, the council successfully lobbied the U.S.D.A. to fund the development of a curriculum that not only would equip students with the entry-level skills needed to work in the industry but would provide a comprehensive grounding in marine science for the college-bound.

"This, to us, was just another version of animal husbandry, which has been in the curriculum for hundreds of years now,'' Mr. Buckhalt says.

The curriculum was also designed to infuse important math, science, and other academic concepts into the coursework of vocational students who might otherwise forgo such classes.

Mr. Lazelle, who team-teaches aquaculture with instructors from two neighboring rural districts, says that the curriculum's flexibility and hands-on emphasis make it attractive to a wide range of students.

"The kids here can take this for science credit, or, if they have enough science, they can also take it as an elective,'' he notes.

They can also obtain two college credits in a marine-science program from a nearby community college by taking both beginning and advanced aquaculture. Furthermore, the courses are also articulated into the college's "tech-prep'' program.

The agriculture-education council, meanwhile, is disseminating its curriculum materials nationwide.

Last year, the group convened 250 prospective aquaculture educators from across the nation for five days of training in how to translate the 1,100-page curriculum into meaningful instruction.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Perhaps one of the most unlikely participants in that meeting was Allen Giese, an agriculture instructor at Wahpeton (N.D.) High School.

Although he and his students live in a landlocked area where the economy is based largely on the production of such crops as beans, soybeans, corn, and wheat, Mr. Giese says the aquaculture curriculum may help illuminate the future of agriculture for some students.

Mr. Giese, who teaches at the Richland County Vo-Tech Center, has adapted much of the N.C.A.E. curriculum into a course called "applied biology/chemistry'' that students can take to fulfill the state's graduation requirements in science.

Many students, he believes, are motivated by taking on a living, breathing project like raising fish.

"One of my goals is to get the kids to see a purpose for the applications of science,'' he says. "My other goal is to enhance the students' ability in science and understanding the theory and putting it into practice.''

Mr. Giese's interest in aquaculture is more than academic: He and a group of friends have started a fish farm of their own.

A Cadillac Program

Mr. Buckhalt says the success of the curriculum in a handful of pilot sites has encouraged a number of schools to experiment with aquaculture.

At a site in Pennsylvania, for example, students not only raise fish, but sell their crop to a local restaurant chain.

"Programs that were stagnant, to say the least, were revitalized,'' he says.

Tom Garrison, the director of vocational education for the Area 30 Technology Center in Greencastle, Ind., says that adopting the aquaculture program has rejuvenated the instructional program there.

"We probably have the Cadillac program in the nation,'' he says.

Centering the vocational high school's educational program on a large and sophisticated aquaculture facility, he says, means that 70 percent of the school's 400 students are involved in some aspect of the process of raising fish for commercial sale.

Computer-science students, for example, monitor the levels of temperature, dissolved oxygen, and acidity in the fish-production tanks.

Plans are now under way to incorporate a hydroponics course into the curriculum that will use effluent from the tanks, which is rich in nitrogen, to raise such commercial crops as tomatoes.

Mr. Garrison says the curriculum "is the finest concept that you can imagine for integrating basic skills into agriculture education.''

Moreover, Mr. Buckhalt notes, elaborate systems of tanks and equipment are not needed to teach aquaculture effectively. The curriculum requires only equipment that can be built in a high school for less than $3,000, especially if donated materials can be found.

The tank systems housed in their own building at South Bend High, for example, were built by vocational-education students and teachers.

Jumping Into the Unknown

Despite the program's early successes, aquaculture is scarcely a mainstay in the high school curriculum.

Robert Keenan, who teaches at Lansdowne High School in suburban Baltimore, notes that he has incorporated elements of the curriculum into other science courses.

One of his students, for example, is developing a software program to aid in identifying fish in an ecology course.

But, he observes, schools are often slow to adopt innovative reforms, and not all the resistance comes from administrators.

"Kids, being kids, they don't want to jump into something they don't know anything about,'' he says.

He also stresses that success in aquaculture can be elusive.

He has attempted, for example, to raise a small population of striped bass, known in Maryland as rockfish. At one time, these fish were plentiful in the nearby Chesapeake Bay, but their dwindling numbers have recently led to outright bans on both sport and commercial fishing.

With the limited resources available in the classroom, however, "I've lost several crops, and I don't know why,'' he says.

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