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No Fish Story

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By REBECCA PIRO

LOWELL The summer Splash program is all about giving kids hands-on experiences with fish.

Well, most kids.

"I don't touch the fish," declared Diane Mokoro, 14, standing on the Suffolk Street bridge that stretches over one of Lowell's canals near Wannalancit Mills. "I don't touch the worms."

She tapped the long fishing rod she was holding hook end facing away from her.

"All I touch is this," she said, grinning.

Whether they like slimy scales or not, everyone involved appears to be enjoying the weekly lessons about the ecosystem that runs through Lowell's canals.

Splash, a program through the University of Massachusetts Lowell's Center for Family, Work and Community, aims to widen kids' awareness of their environment and strengthen their science and math skills outside of the classroom.

Kids from the Rogers School, the YWCA and the Lowell Housing Authority meet Tuesdays with Splash project manager Cheryl West, catching fish, measuring and weighing them. They are growing their own tilapia fish for a lesson on fish farming and economical development inside two large tanks at the School.

"They really learn where food comes from," said West. "Most kids have a very sterile concept (of food). You go to the market and everything's wrapped up for you."

Besides learning how to hook a worm and how to have fun doing it, Splash is serving a greater purpose for community health.

The kids will send several specimens caught in Lowell's canals to a lab in Lawrence. Scientists will test the fish for toxicity levels an estimated $150,000 project done for free and report to the students, and the state, on the cleanliness of the canals.

Such a study in Lowell has never been done before, said West. The information could be helpful to families who eat fish from the canals, and to the city about the condition of its waterways.

"They need to think of themselves as scientists and detectives," West said.

Make that enthusiastic scientists and detectives.

"Lookit! Lookit!" cried a young boy, pointing to the wriggling fish hanging from 9-year-old Tony Yan's line.

Tony barely had a chance to celebrate his victory before he was surrounded by the other kids, peering at the 5-inch-long blue- and green-striped creature.

"It's a bluegill!" yelled Ashley Laferriere, 13, who grasped the fish firmly and slid the hook out from its mouth.

The kids have also tested water from Lowell's canals, inspecting it through a microscope and participating in discussions about pollution.

"It gives them a broader, ecological perspective of what we do to our environment," said West. "If they're trying to grow fish in water, and they're fishing in the water, why are they going to throw trash in the water?"

The program, which serves many minority youths, has a cultural element as well. West will bring along an artifact from Cambodia used for fishing, or she will show the kids films in Khmer.

Splash, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, runs sessions all year long. West is hoping to integrate a marketing program into future sessions, where kids will have the opportunity to sell the fish they grow.

As for now, the lessons the kids have already learned will serve them well.

"You just got to be patient," said Tony, still recovering from the excitement of the catch.

His fellow fisher, 10-year-old Caitlin DeJesus, has words of wisdom about respect for life.

"It's cool to catch fish," she said seriously, "but you have to throw them (back) in so they won't die."