The fish are a valuable “indicator species” — if they’re present, a river is healthy, with proper oxygen levels and temperature and low pollution. If they’re dying out, the waterway is in trouble.

“They’re very sensitive, more sensitive to changes in the water quality than other species,” said Jon Gilmer, who teaches wildlife ecology at Lakeville South High School.

Gilmer’s class will spend the year watching 500 trout develop from eggs to fingerlings, or small fish. They will release them in May into the nearby Vermillion River, known for its trout. The project is part of the Trout in the Classroom program, created by the national nonprofit Trout Unlimited to raise fish and promote healthy rivers.

Eight other metro-area classrooms will also raise trout for the first time. But Gilmer’s students will be the subject of an educational documentary about their experience. The video, paid for by a $5,000 grant from the Vermillion River Watershed Joint Powers Organization, will be filmed by Eagan Television.

The project includes two class field trips to the river during the year, both filmed, to study the river and water quality. The video will promote not only the Trout in the Classroom program, but conservation generally, Gilmer said.

“Any way that we can kind of show what we’re doing to help improve habitats and ecosystems, it makes it that much more valuable,” Gilmer said. “It’s just a way to promote good stewardship.”

Hands-on learning

The Vermillion River runs through Dakota and Scott counties and has long been known for its trout population. But it became so polluted that by the 1980s, the trout died out.

Conditions of the river and its watershed have improved after years of cleanup efforts and tougher pollution restrictions. Some trout have returned.

But there’s still work to be done.

“We know there are some problems, some impairments,” said Paula Liepold, water education specialist for the Vermillion River Watershed District. “We know it takes a lot of people to … help the river get better.”

John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said the organization’s real focus isn’t actually trout, but healthy watersheds — you have to take care of the land surrounding a river if you want anything to live there.

One way to get that message across is through education, he said.

Officials from Trout Unlimited hope that having kids raise trout in schools will also get them outside with their teachers, exploring rivers firsthand.

“I suspect that most kids don’t have an opportunity to sort of see the natural world,” Lenczewski said. “It’s way more compelling than reading something in a book.”

Gilmer also favors field trips and hands-on learning when possible, he said.

“You can only do so much in the classroom,” he said.

Lakeville South senior Ryan Hainka grew up on the Vermillion River. He likes fishing for brown trout, and has noticed that their numbers have increased in his lifetime. He said raising the trout should be fun.

“I’m excited to see them grow,” Hainka said. “It’s kind of cool having control of 500 living things.”