Reading, writing and ... raising fish? Courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources and the support of several key partners, that's the plan for students and teachers who eagerly participate in the DNR's successful Salmon in the Classroom (SIC) program.
SIC is a yearlong natural resources education program in which teachers receive fertilized salmon eggs from a DNR fish hatchery in the fall, hatch them out, feed and raise the fry through spring, and then release the young salmon into a local river. As a bonus, there's an entire curriculum to guide participants throughout the year.
"Salmon in the Classroom teaches students about everything - from the life history of fish to the importance of the Great Lakes and fishing to Michigan's traditions and way of life," said Natalie Elkins, a DNR education specialist who oversees the program for the department.
"Even better, SIC is a great place-based educational effort that ties right back to the kids' communities. Students get invested in and excited about their local rivers and streams, knowing that the smolts they released will return to the very same spot in two to three years to spawn," said Elkins. "That connection encourages a long-standing appreciation for Michigan's natural resources and ecosystem health."
The program has staying power. In Michigan schools for more than a decade, the number of schools participating has grown each year and now boasts 180 schools that will raise salmon through the 2012-13 school year.
To be accepted into Salmon in the Classroom, educators must commit to teaching their students about the Great Lakes ecosystem and fisheries management by raising salmon for almost the entire school year.
"It also requires a commitment on the part of the schools to purchase the necessary equipment including a tank, chiller and other supplies," Elkins said.
The cost - about $1,200 - can be a significant hurdle for many schools, but Elkins said there are many generous sportsmen's organizations and private donors willing to support schools with the needed funding. There's also a lot of guidance available. In addition to Elkins, two DNR staffers - Shana Ramsey at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery and Craig Kasmer at Hartwick Pines State Park - co-coordinate SIC and serve as vital fish and tank experts who can answer lots of questions.
Additionally, many SIC sponsors take responsibility to organize classroom field trips associated with the program in order to get the salmon to a stream in the spring. Many groups also provide an opportunity for students involved with the program to enjoy a fishing experience - for many kids, it's their first time.
One example is the DNR's strong partnership with Michigan Trout Unlimited, a state council providing coordination and representation for 20 local TU chapters and more than 7,000 individuals.
Michigan Trout Unlimited has established a Salmon in the Classroom liaison position within its education committee. The liaison works with the three department program coordinators to:
Recruit new teachers into SIC;
Offer possible funding for their initial setup; and
Serve as a sounding board for new ideas.
In addition, Elkins said TU has committed to providing volunteers who help package the hundreds of bags of food that each teacher will need in the fall. The volunteers also help distribute eggs to teachers at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery and at the Southeast Michigan area egg drop.
"As a TU member, Salmon in the Classroom puts into action what we stand for, to conserve, protect and restore Michigan's coldwater fisheries and their watersheds," said Josh Henley, who serves as the SIC liaison for Trout Unlimited and also teaches science at LakeVille Middle School in Otisville.
"It's a great use of our TU chapter resources," he said. "Although not every kid is going to love to fishing, every kid can learn why our freshwater resources are essential.
As a teacher, Henley said he feels pretty lucky because he gets to see the Salmon in the Classroom program from both sides. "I get to bring the program into my classroom and watch kids learn about our natural resources and really get involved with the salmon," he said. "I also get to teach about something I love."
The DNR's Elkins cited the partnership with the Saugatuck Area Charterboat Association as a relationship that is yielding big rewards for Salmon in the Classroom.
Association members asked SIC teachers at Douglas Elementary School if they could arrange a field trip for the program's fifth-graders to go fishing on Lake Michigan. On a windy May morning, more than 70 fifth-graders boarded big-lake boats and trolled Lake Michigan waters for salmon. Despite some less than cooperative weather, Elkins said the day was a huge success.
"Numerous kids not only enjoyed their first fishing outing," she said. "Many of them caught their first fish!"
Dave Engel, a popular charter boat skipper out of Saugatuck, said his group has sponsored - through funding for aquariums and water chillers - the local Salmon in the Classroom program for the last several years.
The field trip idea came up at an association meeting, the group proposed it to teacher Jacque Groenendyk (who began the program at Douglas Elementary), and the idea took hold.
Elkins said the DNR is excited to see one more example of how community groups get deeply involved with developing students into future stewards of Michigan's natural resources.
"It's so cool," said 11-year-old Taylor Castillo, who was one of the first on her boat to reel in a salmon. "I think it's a great experience for us to learn about salmon."
Classmate Brenda Bekins agreed. The 11-year-old, who had never been fishing before, caught a 13-and-1/2-pound Chinook salmon, which tied for the biggest catch of the day. "I can't believe I caught a 30-inch salmon on my first fishing trip," she said. "My first trip! Great fishing!"
Enthusiastic statements like those from young anglers are exactly what keep the Department of Natural Resources committed to Salmon in the Classroom.
"If we can get young kids excited not only about the fish in their aquariums, but also translate that into a passion and respect for healthy wild fish and their habitat, we're successfully building the next generation of stewards for our state's natural resources," Elkins said. "That's something I'm very proud of."
Mark Stephens, education program coordinator for Project F.I.S.H., agreed.
"The great thing about Salmon in the Classroom is that it links the kids and schools to our resources," Stephens said.
"With programs supported by Project F.I.S.H., the classes are experiencing the resource hands-on by doing stewardship projects in water opportunities and connecting with community partners for actual fishing," Stephens explained. "Classrooms are encouraged to purchase fishing licenses to support the efforts of the DNR for management.
"Kids learn more than just academics with Salmon in the Classroom," he said. "They learn about life."
Teachers (of a third-grade class or older) who are interested in joining Salmon in the Classroom should start at the SIC website - www.michigan.gov/sic
- and complete the online application between Jan. 1 and April 15 for the fall 2013 program.
Those accepted into the program will be contacted before the end of the school year and instructed on next steps, including:
Applying for an SIC Scientific Collector's Permit; and
Signing up for a one-day workshop in November 2013.
Once a teacher is accepted into the program, he or she will automatically be renewed each Participating teachers will receive a tri-annual newsletter with important dates, tips and refreshers to help keep them engaged.
For more information, visit www.michigan.gov/sic
or contact Natalie Elkins, DNR Salmon in the Classroom co-coordinator, at 517-373-6919 or email@example.com