Salmon in the Classroom: Phenomenon Based Learning From River To Classroom

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Every animal knows more than you do ~ Native American Proverb

Digital natives; today’s children and young adults are born into a world with infinite knowledge at their fingertips.  Information is accessible to them in ways that we couldn’t imagine even 20 years ago – all served up on a touch screen with an easy-to-use, intuitive interface.

Much has been made of digital natives’ lack of connection with the natural world.  Sure, they can watch videos about natural processes; but will these digital natives truly understand the world outside of their screens? Can virtual reality ever achieve the sensation of a walk in the woods or a splash in a stream?

Perhaps a hybrid model of learning about the environment best serves this cohort of students.  Children reluctant to spend time outdoors because they were not, as previous generations were, thrust into it and allowed to explore without the temptation of a video game calling them back inside.  These kids simply may need a modern-day solution which combines nature, technology and phenomenon based learning.

Salmon in the Classroom programs exist in several US states with strong salmon fisheries and offer much needed experiential learning to digital natives.   In the Great Lakes area, these programs use the chinook (king) salmon because their life cycle coincides with the traditional school year.  In the fall, salmon instinctively return from the Great Lakes to the rivers where they were born to reproduce.  The salmon swim into special structures built into rivers called weirs, then the eggs are collected, fertilized, and hatched.

How the Salmon in the Classroom Program Works

Every classroom participating in the Salmon in the Classroom program receives 200 hatchlings.  They are placed in fish tanks in the classrooms so the children can raise, observe, and learn from the fish throughout the school year.  In the spring, the students release into local rivers.  From there, the salmon will make their way out the largest inland freshwater lakes in the world. In addition, teachers receive a curriculum allowing them to teach the phenomena of the salmon life cycle studied across multiple subjects.

Through Salmon in the Classroom provides, students learn about the nitrogen cycle as they monitor the fish tank, invasive species, migration, native populations, math, language (including taxonomy and indigenous words), arts, and history. Serious issues such as conservation, pollution, and urban sprawl are often discussed as the students begin to understand the human population’s impact on natural resources.

Continuing in the phenomenon based learning model, students record data such as water temperature, alkalinity levels, and how quickly the salmon are growing based on food intake.  They make decisions and adjustments based on what they have learned is successful for the growth of the salmon. The learning experience also incorporates technology; over school breaks or even just the weekends the kids can check in on the fish with a ‘classroom salmon cam’.

Knowledge (and Salmon) Grows

Students take field trips to fish hatcheries and the rivers, experiencing nature (and sometimes even fishing) first hand. This allows them not only to learn but enjoy and connect with their local natural environments and possibly even start a new hobby. As they watch the young salmon ‘imprint’ when they release the fish on their home rivers; the students themselves change from the learning that has occurred over the course of the school year. They shift from being observers to participants in a natural process and grow deeper roots to the outdoor environment while taking away valuable lessons about far more than just salmon.

There may never be an app that recreates the feeling of connectedness with the world around you. Maybe that is just as well.  With programs like Salmon in the Classroom, even digital natives can learn to step outside – and feel right at home.