Kenny Lake School in Copper Center, Alaska, is small, with about 60 students from kindergarten to high school seniors. It’s even smaller in winter when some parents homeschool their children because of the long drives and slick roads.
Jennifer Hodges is a third, fourth and fifth grade teacher. She says her three-grade class sits only at desks for 20 minutes a day. They do a lot of practical learning, such as raising Coho salmon from egg to Alevin to fry then releasing them into a lake.
It's through a program called Salmon in the Classroom, established by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Kate Morse, program director for the Copper River Watershed Project, is in charge of implementing the program in six schools throughout Alaska's Copper River watershed.
Coho salmon lay eggs in the fall, when many schools start. The eggs remain in the classroom about six months before they are released into lakes. After that, they live for two to four years before they spawn and then die shortly afterwards.
Every day, about a third of Hodges' students ride the bus 45 minutes from the Native Village of Chitina. Many students already have experience fishing salmon, which is a staple in Native Alaskan communities.
"It's really a delicate balance because we are dealing with traditions and culture of the Native people," Hodges says. "This is their land, this is their salmon. And so we have to really be part of that."
Ahtna, a local tribal association, helped donate the tank in her classroom.
Though many of her students grow up fishing salmon for food, few have raised them as pets.
"The salmon have turned from being just fish in their backyard that they catch to eat, to fish that they are connecting to," says Hodges. "With this project, they have a whole different perspective because they know what it takes to actually go through the stages of a salmon."
Students learn about habitat temperature and the effects of climate change
Learning about climate change is more crucial now than ever. In 2022, the Arctic had its sixth-warmest year on record. But these lessons are made concrete to them in raising salmon, which require cold water to survive.
"We had a failure in our equipment and it brought the temperature up about five degrees," says Hodges.
"Just warming it that much just wiped out our eggs."
Another lesson: observing how lethal pollutants can be to a salmon’s habitat
During the months that the salmon are in the classroom, students like to sit by the tank to observe.
"When the eggs hatch they have sacs that carry their food," says Addy, a student. "That way they can hide still and don't have to look for food. It's funny because when they try to swim they just end up in circles," Hodges says.
"For instance, putting hand sanitizer on your hands and then putting your fingers in the tank – you've polluted the tank. That has happened to us before. That year we had seven make it. Normally we have about 180 that make it."
That, of course, is the yolk — a tiny sack of food the baby salmon emerges with. Morse, who oversees the program, says that salmon don't have to eat until they reach the fry stage.
There’s way more to learn: math, writing and appreciating the outdoors
Students like to calculate when the salmon will turn from eggs to Alevin to fry based on the temperature of the tank. To them, it's not practicing math problems: it's predicting the future.
"We always take a guess at when they will hatch from their eggs first," says Liam, a student. "It takes math because you have to keep track of their temperature and add their ATUs. I'm good at math so I usually get it right."
Since Hodges and her students live in such a rural area, there aren't many field trips. But each year in May, she takes her students on the Salmon Field Trip, where they get to release the salmon they've raised in class.
They will name the fish, then release them into the wild and never see them again. But it's not sad: it's the highlight of the year.
"The best part is getting to release them after watching them hatch from eggs, grow into fry and take care of them," says Fisher, a student. "You get to say goodbye."
The student put the salmon in a bucket and then secured it with a seatbelt. Students suit up in chest waders, rubber bodysuits to keep them dry when they go into lakes, and then each gets a cup of about ten fish. They put the cup under water and let the fish swim out.
"I went to release them last year and the lake still was covered part way with ice," says Styrling, a student. "I fell in. It was cold, but it was still funny."
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