A Michigan Conservation Success Story
Arianna O’Nan has been caring for 150 young Chinook salmon since November. She, and the people she works with, must test the tank water every few days, treat it should problems arise, feed the fish according to precise measurements, and perform water changes for the tank.
She is working hand-in-hand with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery to educate the public on the importance of conserving Michigan’s natural resources and inspire future generations to follow in her footsteps. And she is only 10 years old.
All of this hands-on experience is thanks to Salmon in the Classroom program.
Salmon in the Classroom is run by the DNR. Selected Michigan teachers receive 150 Chinook salmon eggs in the fall of the school year from a fish hatchery. They then raise and care for the young salmon throughout the year, and they finally release their young smolt into the wild in the spring in hopes that the fish will eventually reproduce and help to populate Michigan’s Great Lakes and rivers.
Throughout the course of the school year, students learn in a hands-on way about Michigan’s fishing industry and the resources it provides. They have the opportunity to watch real Chinook salmon eggs hatch, grow, and become healthy young fish. Not only can they watch them grow, but they are also involved in raising their salmon by feeding daily, doing regular water tests, and by helping with tank water changes.
“I enjoy testing the water because it’s cool how we can feel like scientists,” said Arianna O’Nan, fifth grader at Holy Ghost Lutheran School in Monroe. This is her school’s first year participating in the program, and it has proven to be successful so far.
“I’ve learned that it’s hard for animals to grow up. They need the right foods and proper water to live in,” O’Nan said. Several other states on the west coast, including Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, offer the Salmon in the Classroom program for their teachers. Additionally, many states offer a similar program called Trout in the Classroom.
Michigan is unique because it is the only inland state to participate in Salmon in the Classroom.
The program began in Michigan in 1997 with just a handful of schools, but it has now grown to include more than 270 classrooms across the state.
Kevin Frailey, Education Services Manager for the Michigan DNR, helped grow the program into what it is now. He was hired when the program doubled from 35 to 70 schools in March 2006.
“The program’s main mission is to allow students to raise a live Michigan resource in the classroom and learn about the Great Lakes, fisheries management, invasive species, and more,” Frailey said. “Students are not just exposed to an hour nature lesson but almost an entire year of exposure to Great Lakes education.”
Frailey told the story of one special needs student who took a particular interest in his classroom salmon.
“Soon that student had become the ‘salmon expert,’ and all the other students would go to him with questions,” he said. “This student blossomed and became a salmon ‘rock star.’ His personality and confidence grew and grew.”
“The teacher said the program changed the student’s life.”
Similar success stories have led to even more growth in the program over the years.
In 2017, as the program grew, the DNR hired Tracy Page, Aquatic Education Coordinator, to run the entire program.
“It is a big undertaking,” Page said. “In the past year, I have overhauled our Teacher’s Guide and added new Classroom Activities (among other things).”
For example, to get eggs to teachers, she has to help count, set aside, and transport 270 sets of eggs (150 each). That’s a total of 40,500 eyed eggs!
The Chinook salmon eggs in Michigan mostly come from the Little Manistee Weir egg collection. Three hatcheries take the eggs after they are collected: Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery (Mattawan), Platte River State Fish Hatchery (Beulah), and the Thompson State Fish Hatchery (Thompson in the U.P.).
Once the eggs hit the “eyed” egg stage (after about a month), they are ready to be distributed to teachers around the state. The teachers pick the eggs up from the nearest fish hatchery.
New teachers attend a one-day professional development workshop on how to care for the salmon and how to teach their students about the fish. They are given activities and lessons that cover Michigan’s natural resources, aquatic invasive species, the salmon life cycle, and the fishing industry, to name a few.
New this year was a weekend “Salmon Summit” in Higgins Lake. The summit, which took place in January, allowed teachers to get hands-on experience with dissections, tackle crafting, and gyotaku (the art of making fish prints).
They also learned from biologists about the state of salmon in Michigan, the Arctic Grayling Initiative, and the impacts of invasive species. The teachers were then able to take the skills and new knowledge back to their students, the next generation of conservationists.
Melissa Jachim, third grade teacher at Knapp Charter Academy in Grand Rapids, attended the Summit this year.
“Our salmon tank is in the hallway of our school,” she said. “The Summit had so many amazing ideas that next year I am pulling the tank into my classroom because there is so much that can impact the kids.”
Jachim has participated in the program now for six years.
“I love watching how much the kids enjoy the process,” she said. “They get so excited when the eggs show up and in the anticipation of them hatching. Every kid gets an opportunity to see the development of the salmon throughout the year.”
The whole program culminates in the spring when teachers plan a special day to release their salmon into pre-approved DNR release sites throughout the state. These activities may include guest speakers, nature hikes, trash clean-up, and fishing.
“I think our first release was a success story in the fact that just the program as a whole was new for us, but we made it a day-long educational experience for the kids,” said Brian Hendricks, Northview High School science teacher in Grand Rapids. This is his second year being part of the program.
“We not only did the release but also invertebrate sampling of the river, and we had the DNR come out. It was interesting to see just how many kids really enjoyed the outdoor educational experience.”
This year Hendricks plans to invite the kindergarten through third grade students from their “Field School” (outdoor learning school). He says they will come visit the salmon in his classroom, learn about them, and will then be invited to take part in their release day celebrations.
After teachers release their salmon, they will then have to submit a Stocking Report to let the DNR know how many salmon were stocked and where.
The program has been successful so far, and Tracy Page has plans for it to be successful in the future.
“We plan to add about 25 new schools each year,” she said. “Growing the capacity of the program to reach more students across the state is a main goal of mine.”
“Getting live resources in front of students, every day, from which they can learn such a wide variety of content is a rare treat in the education world. The wonder that is inspired in our Salmon in the Classroom students is amazing, and it sticks with them.”
If you are a Michigan teacher interested in applying to be part of the Salmon in the Classroom program, visit the Michigan DNR website to learn more. The application period for the 2019-2020 school year is open now until April 15, 2019. It is open to classrooms third grade or higher.