Science classes at Mt. Pleasant High School raise salmon to be released into the Chippewa River

What’s happening: During the 2016-2017 school year, Mount Pleasant High School AP environmental science teacher, Ken Schafer, attended a Michigan Science Teachers Association conference in Lansing. At the conference, the Michigan DNR presented their Salmon in the Classroom program which helps students in 3rd through 12th grade across the state raise, learn from, and release salmon into approved waterways.

“I like to do hands-on stuff in my classroom, and from that point forward I knew it was something I wanted to do,” shares Schafer. 

He applied for the program, was selected as one of the participating classrooms, and attended the required training. Now, this is Schafer’s fifth year participating in the DNR’s Salmon in the Classroom program. His classroom recently received this year’s salmon eggs from the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center in Cadillac.

What is the Salmon in the Classroom program: Almost 300 Salmon in the Classroom teachers around the state are participating in this year’s DNR program. Elementary through high school classes raise Chinook salmon from eggs in the fall through to releasing young smolts in the spring. Throughout the year, students learn about the history of salmon in Michigan, participate in themed activities, maintain the classroom tank, care for the fish, and then release them in the spring.

“We talk a lot about the history of salmon in Michigan right now when there’s just eggs and not a lot going on,” says Schafer. “They are also scrubbing algae in the tank and doing tank maintenance.”

(Photo courtesy of Ken Schafer)What does this mean for the students: Ever since the eggs arrived in the classroom a few weeks ago, the hands-on instruction has kicked off. “On a day-to-day basis, kids come in and walk over to the tank to see if anything has hatched or anything new has been going on,” says Schafer.

Currently, the eggs don’t need to be fed. Students test the water once a week. And they suck out dead and diseased eggs with a turkey baster before they negatively impact the other eggs. This check-in process will continue for a couple more weeks. 

The eggs will start hatching right before Christmas break – or during – says Schafer. During break, the tank will stay at the school and Schafer will come in a couple times to check on their development status. 

“Once school resumes, then we’ll continue to observe, students will be able to feed them, and we’ll check the water quality three to four days a week,” Schafer says. “They might have to add additives after testing the water, and they’ll learn to keep, track and analyze the data.”

“There’s so many teachable moments that happen in the time the eggs are here,” Schafer shares. “From invasive species to the range of tolerance organisms can live in, there’s so much good science that students can relate to and have a good experience with.”

What they’re saying: “I enjoy walking in every morning and having something to check out in the classroom and giving the kids a reason to be here,” Schafer says of his experience. “I’ll have students that come check out the aquarium that aren’t even in my classroom.”

Schafer enjoys bringing his passion for the river into his classroom. “I grew up on the river and I’ve always been into fishing. My grandparents had a house on the Chippewa River so I grew up playing with crawfish. A lot of kids don’t have that opportunity and it’s nice to get them outside.”

(Photo courtesy of Ken Schafer)After the eggs are developed and cared for during the winter months, what’s next? Come spring, Schafer plans to release the fish at Chipp-A-Waters Park in Mt. Pleasant. A few years ago, the students biked to the release site — saving fossil fuels which added a complementary lesson into his AP environmental science class. This coordination added “a little more work on my end, but it was worth it in the end” says Schafer. 

Schafer continues with a chuckle: “Last year we found a baby turtle and that was kind of cool – seeing students pick them up and then having another lesson about salmonella and washing your hands.” 

“It’s really nice to see kids doing hands-on stuff, out of a classroom setting, and seeing them explore.”

Read more articles by Courtney Jerome.

With 15 years of professional media experience, Courtney Jerome has found a passion for storytelling and showcasing our region in a positive light. She's written stories for television broadcasts, numerous magazines, and digital publications. In addition, she owns a boutique creative marketing agency that focuses on social media, photo, and video storytelling for small businesses across Michigan and the country — courtneyjeromemedia.com. Contact Courtney, the managing editor of Epicenter, at editor@epicentermtpleasant.com.