Every winter, the school gets salmon eggs from a hatchery and raises them for several months in a special tank.
In spring, the kids release them into the creek and send them off to the ocean, hoping they will return to spawn. It’s a service oriented venture that began as a master’s degree project for a student teacher many years ago.
Traditionally, sixth graders have been involved in the project, but the goal is to eventually have fourth graders take over, as it is a better match for their curriculum.
"Fourth graders study Washington state," explains Peggy Sherman, sixth grade teacher at the school. "So the ‘Salmon in the Classroom’ project fits better there than in the sixth grade."
Sherman has been in charge of the project for the past three years.
This year, however, she is passing the reins down to fourth grade teacher, Brooke Selg.
The project, which is conducted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, involves 800 teachers in the state.
In early January, Bear Creek was given 250 salmon eggs, which were put in a 55 gallon tank.
In the initial stages, small groups of sixth grade volunteers visit the tank each day to observe the eggs and note when they hatch.
After this has occurred, they watch for the fish to lose their yolk sac. Once the sac is gone, they will feed the salmon ground shrimp several times a day.
"They’ll also measure the water quality, track nitrates, nitrites, measure the pH level and ammonia," says Selg. "They’ll calculate the Accumulated Thermal Units, as well, and record all of these measurements on a big chart."
Selg comments that the project provides the students with an up close view of the lifecycle of the salmon and the impact of the environment on the fish.
"It encourages them to be stewards of the environment through hands-on involvement and gets them to personally invest in the health of the salmon," she notes.
Sherman adds, "The kids become highly engaged in the project and it is an intensely exciting experience as they take responsibility for the well-being of their fish. The life cycle and environmental needs of salmon become real in a way no book or paper exercise can explain. They care deeply about the salmon’s long-term well-being and the quality of the environment the fish are being released into. I think the project helps to build truly educated and involved citizens."
All of the participating students look forward to releasing the fish in the spring in the nearby creek. They hope that some of the salmon will find their way back later, however, the odds are slim.
According to Sherman, salmon will lay between 2,000 to 5,000 eggs and out of that number, only two will return. "We’ve actually never seen any salmon come back here," she adds. "Historically, there have been Coho in the creek, but not for many years." Many of the sixth grade volunteers are curious about the fish and hope to learn more about their development and survival techniques.
"I want to know why they don’t stay in freshwater," says Kinzley Copeland. "And I’d like to know how they find their way back home," adds Hannah Torggler. The students agree that it will be fun to watch the fish’s tails and heads pop out, as well as the changes in color they predict will occur.
"It feels good to know that we’re helping the environment," comments Veronica Hill. "I just hope that some of the salmon return."