Port Graham Students Study Salmon Lifecycle

Feb 16, 2017

Port Graham students search for marine life on beaches near the village in this photo from spring 2016.
Credit Devin Way

For the last five months, fifth through twelfth grade students in Port Graham have been getting a hands-on look at the lifecycle of fish.

The project is a joint effort with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s ‘Salmon in the Classroom’ program and the Port Graham Hatchery. The students are raising eggs from the hatchery that they will eventually release into the wild later this spring.

KBBI’s Shady Grove Oliver spoke with teacher Colby Way about his class project:

OLIVER: First of all, let’s talk a little bit about how this project got started and what you’ve been doing so far.

WAY: So we teamed up with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Port Graham hatchery and received 500 pink salmon eggs and we then placed them into our tank to begin maintaining the tank, pH levels, ammonia levels, oxygen levels, tracking egg development, water temperature, you name it.

The kids wholeheartedly took to this project and it was very, very student-centered. I had very little to do with data management or even presentation, which was really nice.

OLIVER: Now that you’re just shy of five months in, what stage of development are your fish at and what’s next for the kids?

WAY: We’re post-hatch, so we’re currently in the tail end of the phase when, for lack of a better term, baby fish are swimming around with the yolk sack still attached, which is their necessary food supplement for that time of their lives. So right now, we’re on the tail end of that. The yolk sacks are being absorbed. They’re free-swimming and we’re moving into the fry stage right now.

We’ll be monitoring our salmon for about another month and then we’ll put them into the pens that Port Graham hatchery is going to provide for us into the saltwater and let them begin their stage in the saltwater once they hit the smolt phase.

Then, once again, after about another month of waiting, the hatchery will let us know and we’ll go down and have a little celebration of our babies swimming off into the wild.

OLIVER: What was the ultimate goal of this project? What were you, as a class, aiming to achieve?

WAY: So, the end goal of this was essentially a huge responsibility unit. But, it was also a great, tangible lesson that ties right into our book lesson on salmon lifecycles. So, instead of just using pictures or models, we got to track and watch the real-life hatching and development of young salmon.

It was just an all-around fantastic unit that just encompassed so much of the curriculum from science to responsibility teaching, to study skills with keeping data, to math with the data, and then the write-ups that we do that get presented back to me by the students tied in a great language arts lesson. So, it was an all-encompassing lesson, just an all-around quality meeting school goals lesson.

OLIVER: I’m wondering, you know, the students in Port Graham are already really tied into their environment there from doing subsistence with their parents to what they’re doing in school. I’m wondering how that helped the project or vice versa, that reciprocal relationship.

WAY: Oh, well, as you know how the students are so engrained in nature even to a subconscious level. Walking to school, you’re essentially walking through a mountainous, forested region.

So, what this did was it actually provided me with a ton of prior knowledge that the students already had, especially the fishermen in my classroom, to come in and really shine, to get that opportunity to get the head nods in class and have the look of agreement on their face as I’m presenting a lesson, and also [to have] the ‘aha’ moments, especially for the students who do know a lot about the wilderness, to kind of get those little bits of information that are more scientific [about] why the salmon or the salmon run or the salmon lifecycle follow these paths.

And, when you have, as an educator, that level of engagement in the classroom, it makes you want to go out and show more to the students, not just what the curriculum is asking you to do. So, it was an awesome, awesome experience [where] I got to push the students and they got to push me in my knowledge of salmon, as well. All in all, we just had a blast with it. We just had a lot of fun.