There’s something fishy happening at TRSS

Trent Ernst, Editor


The science class is located next to the library up the stairs from the main foyer, but most of the Grade 11 science and technology class is down in the shop today.

If you were to stand and observe the action, it would be nearly impossible to get a sense of what’s going on. Indeed, there seems to be five or six separate groups, each doing their own thing. At one of the tables, Karissa is painting a board, while nearby, other students are doing woodwork.

Across the room, another pair is boring a large hole into a large plastic drum while nearby, while at the back of the room, Kenesha is tole painting something on the wall of a small room. Inside, two other students are working on some plastic piping, and, in the dead centre of the room, like the calm eye to the storm of activity about them, Brian and Nichelle are hunched over a computer.

It is Kenesha who holds the key to this mystery. On closer inspection, what she is painting is a stylized fish. Above and below the fish is written “TRSS Fish Farm 2015.” This is not a science class at all. It’s a business.

Or rather, it is science being done under the guise of a business, says teacher Mark Deeley. “This is a new learning experience,” he says. “It’s something they haven’t been done before. They’re going to be working almost as if it’s a company. It’s based on the fish farm that I used to work on.”

There are no tests in this class, says Deeley. “The kids are building everything from scratch. We want full engagement and ownership from them. It’s about real world skills. They’ll be rewarded for their efforts to learn. The whole idea is if they have different interests and different skills, they’ll be given different tasks. One kid might be working on a computer the entire course, and another kid might be working on construction and plumbing the entire time.”

Over the next few months, the kids will be raising 500-1000 goldfish. Their end goal is to raise healthy fish in the most economical way possible. That means low mortality, a high level of health and a low feed conversion rate. “This is what all fish farms use to measure,” says Deeley. “You put in too much food, you’re wasting your money, but if you don’t put in enough the fish start to nip each other and you start to have health problems.”

To do this, says Deeley, this will be far more hands-on than just your standard goldfish in a bowl. “We have to handle them, to weight them and to grade them,” he says. “That means we need to sort them by size so all the big fish are in one tank, all the little fish are in another, and all the medium fish are in a third tank. You have to do that several times through the process.”

While there are no tests, says Deeley, the kids are certainly going to be measured on how well they perform, and functioning as part of a team with a set goal or series of goals is paramount. “If you fail a test,” says Deeley, “it just affects you. In this course, if you don’t feed the fish and a hundred fish die, it affects the entire farm, just like it would in a company.”

Over the last two months, the teams have been working on setting everything up: setting up the tanks and building the water system, as well as building the computer tracking system. But this week, the fish arrive and everything needs to be up and running before that happens.

It looks like the class will hit that deadline. On March 30, one of the students posted that they are having a 48 hour test of the water system to make sure everything is working okay. “Wednesday, we are getting 300 fish, and every couple weeks we will be getting another 300 fish. We are currently building another water table and we are going to be building another header tank and bio filter for the second table…. With everyone working hard, we will get this done.”

While Deeley is providing guidance and suggestions, the teams have the freedom to do what they want. “I provide suggestions, but if they team wants to, they have the right to say ‘this isn’t going to work, Mr Deeley, and we’ve changed it.”

Over the next few weeks, says Deeley, he will also be receiving some watercress, which he plans on growing in the header tank. “What the watercress will do is clean the water of nitrates and nitrites that the fish produce,” he says. “It acts as a natural biofilter, and it will become its own self-contained ecosystem.

School generally runs five days of the week, but, says Deeley, the fish need to be monitored constantly. Because the kids can’t have keys to the school to come in, the class is setting up video cameras so they can monitor the fish remotely. “One of the great things about goldfish is you only need to feed them once a week. You won’t get great growth, but you can go two days without feeding them. But what if the water system shuts down? What if there’s a leak? We’re going to have cameras set up and there’s going to be a kid on duty over the weekends that will check the cameras every three hours.”

Members of the general public can also check out how the fish are doing at, though the feed will not be live during school hours.

So what happens to all those goldfish once the class is over? Deeley says there are a couple options. “One option is the store that we bought the goldfish from has said they will take them back. Secondly, the Chamber of Commerce has said they might want to buy the goldfish to hand out to kids at Canada Day. Either way, the fish are gone before summer and we can tear down the whole system and decide what we’re doing next year. It’s a totally encapsulated thing.”

And here’s where the metaphor of it being like a business breaks down, because the ultimate goal is not about producing the fish and selling them for a profit. “The key is the kids learning, showing up on time, doing well and being part of a team. If they don’t do their job well, it affects everyone else. And that’s what they need to get.

What we do at this school is really good but sometime it is so focused on the individual, but if that individual decides not to come to class, he’s not really affecting anyone but him. Here, you don’t show up, and the fish die, that affects everybody. If you don’t show up and get the water system running, the computer person is going to be sitting around with nothing to do.

Deeley says if all goes well, in a couple years, they might be moving on to other fish. “It took me a lot to get this set up and get this working this way. This could lead into something more, but this is a good starting point. I really want to see how this goes and how excited the kids are. In the future, I want to move into something like tilapia. The nice thing about tilapia that they grow in dirty water and they grow really really fast. But what do you do with 500 tilapia? We can’t sell them for food fish, because we’re not set up for that.”

Deeley says they started with goldfish as a testing ground. Not just to figure out the science and technology behind it, but to see how well the kids did, and how enthusiastic they were.

And the response? “It’s phenomenal. I’ve got to kick them out of class every day. They’ve really gelled as a team. The water system is up and running, and everything seems to be going fine.”