Connecting Students and Salmon in Their Watershed

salmon3bHow rearing salmon in an elementary classroom can foster powerful teaching and learning in the content areas, environmental awareness, and good stewardship of the Earth

By Daniel S. King, PhD

My transition in January of last year to a new position teaching science, math, and technology to 5th graders at STARBASE ATLANTIS on Navy Base Kitsap has caused me to reflect on my 11 years as an elementary school teacher.

There is no doubt that my work as a public school teacher was rewarding in countless ways; however, the most profound, meaningful, and enjoyable experience for me during my years as an elementary school teacher was participating in a Salmon in the Classroom Project. Likewise, I believe the project has had a positive and enduring impact on the hundreds of students that participated along with me.

For 10 years my students and I raised salmon in the classroom and then released them into Clear Creek in Silverdale, Washington which is located on the Kitsap Peninsula.

salmon4aAs an elementary school teacher I had taught every level from kindergarten through 6th grade. My experience teaching at each of these grade levels enabled me to become familiar with the broad K-6 curriculum as well as the developmental continuum of K-6 learners. One of the most important things I learned from my wide-ranging teaching experience is that a vast majority of children at every elementary grade level are passionate about protecting animals and animal habitats in the world in which they live. Furthermore, Iíve learned that through real-world inquiry-based learning activities even the least motivated students become exceptionally engaged in the learning process. It is true that over the course of 10 years I took over 900 children in kindergarten through 6th grade on salmon release field trips without experiencing any serious behavior issues! Clearly, outdoor education provides opportunities for powerful teaching and learning events for all types of learners. Indeed, the outdoors provides a positive context for learning in a way that cannot be duplicated within the confines of a classroom.

Salmon in the Classroom
Each January, shortly after my students returned from winter break, they would arrive at school one morning surprised to see a new addition to the classroom–a specially designed salmon tank set up and ready to receive salmon eggs. Within a few days of discovering the salmon tank, a volunteer from the Kitsap Kiwanis Club would arrive unannounced with a small burlap bag full of salmon eggs. He would then dump about 200 pinkish pearl-like Chum Salmon eggs into the egg tray in front of an audience of curious on-lookers. Once all the eggs were deposited the students looked closely and discovered that the eggs were translucent and that you could see the eyes of the tiny fish inside them. “These are eyed-eggs and soon to hatch,” the Kiwanis volunteer would explain. So began the process of discovery and learning about the salmon life cycle.

salmon12For the week or so after the salmon eggs arrived, eager learners would flock to the tank each day to marvel and wonder at the sight of salmon fry hatching. The eggs bounced and jiggled until finally the alevin (also know as sac fry) emerged complete with their fatty bulge (a yolk sac for nourishment) in their abdomens. The alevin would then wriggle and squeeze through the wire mesh of the egg tray and swim downward into the rocks and gravel where they remained hidden for approximately six weeks. “Where did they all go?” the students would wonder upon discovering no more eggs on the egg tray and no baby salmon to be seen anywhere in the tank. “What do you suppose happened to them?” I would respond.

salmon7Day after day the children would peer curiously into the window of the tank. At first, the tank would be frequented by almost every student in the class. Then, over the ensuing weeks with no activity to be seen, curiosity would begin to wane and the tank would be visited by fewer and fewer students. Approximately six weeks later, usually when a student strayed to the tank on a trip to the water fountain or pencil sharpener, the class would become startled by the cry, “I saw one! I saw a baby salmon!” With this, the entire class would race to the tank to have a look. Sure enough, several salmon fry would be swimming about the tank. Indeed, as their fatty deposits diminish, the fry “button up” and emerge from their rocky hiding places in search of food. “It’s time to begin feeding our fish,” I would say. It was also time to begin the next phase of discovery and learning.

Using Children’s Inquiry as a Catalyst for Learningsalmon16
Children of all ages are naturally curious about ambiguous and novel phenomena and experiences. Teachers can take advantage of children’s curiosity and wonder to foster inquiry-based learning events. Learning fueled by inquiry is powerful and engaging. Inquiry sparks motivation, desire, and purpose for learning because children naturally seek to make meaning of ambiguous and novel information. Things in nature, particularly live animals, seem to appeal to most children fostering in them a desire to use their keen observation skills. This is what makes the salmon in the classroom project such a powerful catalyst for teaching and learning new concepts and skills. Through the salmon in the classroom project using a variety of cooperative and exploratory learning activities I was able to teach students in grades K-6 core concepts in both science and social studies and integrate lesson in language arts, math, and visual arts thereby creating a multi-disciplinary salmon education curriculum.

For example, in the process of raising the salmon fry, students learned not only about the salmon life cycle, but that all animals (including humans) have a life cycle. One way this was accomplished was by having students cut out pictures from kid-friendly magazines of people in various stages of life (infant, toddler, child, pre-teen, teen-ager, young adult, and so on) for use in making their own human life-cycle posters. In the process, students were able to compare and contrast the salmon life cycle and the human life cycle.

salmon9Other important concepts learned during the salmon in the classroom project included the water cycle, wetlands and watersheds, estuaries, the Northwest forest ecosystem, systems in nature, interrelationships, the food web (particularly the key role salmon play), migration, point and non-point sources of pollution, steam ecology and restoration, commercial fishing, animal habitats, and animal survival. Each one of these concepts was introduced through constructivist methods utilizing different modalities to accommodate different learning styles prior to using print and media sources such as picture books, posters, brochures, newspaper articles, and videos. By learning these concepts students were exposed to and used in their everyday language a rich bank of technical vocabulary to use in questioning and exploratory inquiry dialogue. Additionally, through the salmon in the classroom project my students applied math and science skills for real-world purposes such as observing macro-invertebrates using a jewelerís loop, reading a thermometer, testing the pH level of a water sample, and recording water quality test data on tables and graphs.

salmon8Salmon Release Day
On salmon release day my students rotated in small groups through a variety of learning stations which I had set up along the banks of a 100-yard stretch of Clear Creek. The stretch of creek is on private property which we were invited to use for educational use by a Kiwanis member. Here, Clear Creek meanders beneath a dense canopy of alder, big leaf maple, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar trees. Whereas in some sections of clear creek the water is slow moving and deep over a muddy bottom, at this particular section of Clear Creek the shady and cool water runs clear and fast over a gravelly bed. There are numerous tree branches, logs, and rocks in the stream forming dark deep pools every so often. These are all indicators that the stream in this location is truly an ideal habitat for salmon fryóor is it?  Thatís the question my students were challenged to investigate by performing a water quality analysis and stream study.

salmon19The water quality analysis consisted of a series of tests taken at various stations along the stream. The tests included searching for and identifying macro-invertebrates (such as stone fly and caddis fly nymphs), and testing the water for its pH, nitrate, phosphate, dissolved oxygen levels, and turbidity levels. Additionally, students also measured the water temperature and rated the riparian zone for how much shade it provided the stream, and observed the stream to determine if it had an appropriate amount of woody debris (such as fallen logs and sticks), rocks, gravel, riffles, pools, and undercuts. Each of these was rated on a Likert scale to give an overall value of the health of the stream. Though over the years there were differences in the number and type of macro-invertebrates found the other tests and measures remained fairly consistent over the years and the section of the creek was concluded year after year to be a ìhealthyî and ideal location to release to release our Chum salmon.

Besides the Clear Creek check-up, the students participated in a variety of other hands-on learning stations along the creek to include mapping the Chum Salmon migration route, exploring the effects of storm water run-off and erosion, planting trees, observing the soil of the forest, searching for and identifying plants and trees in a scavenger hunt, and listening to Northwest Native American folktales. Further, students were involved in simulations such as Survival in the Forest, in which students played the role of various animals and had to survive by finding appropriate amounts of food, water, and shelter (depending on their species) and salmon2by avoiding certain dangers such as hunters and forest fires. Another simulation, Build a Tree, involved students role-playing various components of a tree (roots, trunk, branches, and leaves) and the different seasons of the year. However, by far the favorite simulation was the Salmon Salmon game in which students played either a salmon or a predator such as an otter, seal, bear, or orca. The salmon had to travel from one section of a field, the “stream,” through an “estuary,” then through”Dye’s Inlet,” “the Puget Sound,” the “Straight of Juan de Fuca,” and finally, into the “Pacific Ocean” and then back to the stream without being eaten by a predator. This was the culminating activity of every salmon release day and proved a very realistic illustration of how only a small percentage of salmon actually make it back to the stream of their birth to spawn.

salmon15Community Support
The Salmon in the Classroom Project as I described it would not have been possible without the help and support of many people and organizations in the community. The main thrust of the project was coordinated by the Kitsap Kiwanis Club which provided salmon tanks to schools and which also obtains and distributes salmon eggs (provided by the Suquamish Tribe) to the participating classrooms. Additionally, the Kiwanis Association continues to provide food (dried shrimp) for feeding the salmon fry, maintenance support for the salmon tanks, curriculum support, and logistical and volunteer support for field trips.

I also received tremendous support from the Kitsap County Stream Team (a department of the Public Utilities District) which provided instructional kits and materials for completing a water quality analysis and collecting macro-invertebrates (ìbugsî) from the creek bed. The Stream Team also provided maps, posters, puppets and a puppet stage, samples of macro-invertebrates, and classroom visits to give lessons on water quality.

Other supporters included numerous sailors over the years from the USS Michigan PECE program who facilitated learning stations along the creek on Salmon Release Day and who refereed the Salmon Salmon game. Additionally, several parents and community members volunteered as chaperones and helpers each year. It is because of the tremendous community support that my students and I received that the project was a success year after year.

Starting Your Own Salmon in the Classroom Project
Teachers interested in participating in a Salmon in the Classroom Project will find there are many local and regional projects in geographic areas in the US and abroad where salmon streams are found. There is widespread support from many different organizations which supply tanks and supplies, curriculum, technical expertise, guest speakers, field equipment, and help with field trips. Often, funding is available for bus transportation to release sights. Of course, the types and amount of support varies with each location; however, interested teachers can begin by going to the websites provided below:

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Website has description of program and salmon tank equipment as well as application to obtain salmon eggs:

Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center Partnership. Website has curriculum ideas, instructions on how to care for salmon fry, and how to maintain a salmon tank:

Renton, Washington, School District. Website has curriculum ideas, worksheets, salmon release field trip information, and descriptions of the various types of salmon tanks:

The Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, K-12 Wild Salmon and Watershed Education Outreach. Visits K-12 schools throughout the Hood Canal Watershed during the school year. The purpose of this education outreach is to deliver project based learning lessons on salmon education and water quality:

Eugene, Oregon, 4J Salmon in the Classroom Program. Provides equipment, school workshops, lessons, how-to materials, and salmon release field trip support:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Adopt a Salmon Family. Website provides a complete teachers guide for raising salmon and water quality testing, and stream restoration, salmon coloring book, slides and videos, and many links to salmon education related websites: