Special Gwinn classroom project teaches Great Lakes ecosystem, fish growth

MARQUETTE – Kristy Gollakner’s eighth-grade science students at Gwinn Middle School have a few class pets to care for this year – about 195 in total.

The pets – all chinook salmon – are still babies, as the students are only about halfway through the Department of Natural Resources’ Salmon in the Classroom program, which lets students learn the life cycle of a salmon, from egg to adulthood by raising the salmon in a tank in the classroom.

Gwinn’s program is also sponsored by the Northwoods Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which helps pay for the cost of the tank, the chiller, food and other necessary supplies.

Gollakner uses the program to incorporate the salmon’s life cycle and Great Lakes ecosystem into her curriculum, offering students a real-life example of the aquatic ecosystem that lies right out their backdoors.

The program is a lengthy one, requiring a time commitment that typically runs from October until May, when the class heads out to a nearby river to release the salmon into the wild.

“Salmon In the Classroom extends much farther than the month we take to intensely focus on these fish and their ecosystem,” Gollakner said in an email. “Throughout the year, students help clean the tank after school and we routinely check and keep data on the chemical health of the water in our tank.”

Craig Kasmer, DNR Salmon in the Classroom representative for the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, said that aspect is one of the main components of the program.

“Responsibility,” Kasmer said. “The kids have to make sure the water levels are good. It’s just like having a pet, in a way. You don’t have to take it outside to go the bathroom … but you still have to make sure it’s alive.”

Gollakner said the meticulous work of her students is paying off: of the 240 eyed eggs the class began with, 220 hatched and 195 are still going strong, with most fish ranging from 3 to 4 inches in length.

The group of salmon even had an albino fish in their midst for awhile, but it wasn’t strong enough to fight for the food it needed to survive, and it eventually died.

“This program fits beautifully into our science curriculum as we learn about the delicate balance within ecosystems as well as inter-relationships that exist between animals in these ecosystems,” Gollakner said. “My students and I had fun learning about the history of chinook salmon in our Great Lakes ecosystem.”

The chinook salmon, the class learned, is not native to the Great Lakes. Rather, it was introduced to help restore the lake trout population, after it was decimated by the sea lamprey, which is also an invading species. The drop in lake trout further complicated the altered ecosystem by allowing the alewife, another invasive species, to grow rapidly in population.

“The introduction of the chinook salmon was a success in that this top predator got the alewife population back in check while sea lamprey extermination efforts (by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) have allowed our lake trout population to continue healing,” Gollakner said. “In learning about the introduction of the chinook, we also take time to better understand our Great Lakes waterways and the progression of shipping and canals that had changed overtime.”

Kasmer said the program is a memorable one for the students who participate.

“I’ve talked to enough students who say, ‘Oh my gosh, we raised salmon in fourth grade, and I remember that.’ It really sticks with them,” Kasmer said. “It’s not like, say, learning contractions, you know, is, is not, isn’t. You learn that and then you use them. This is like a point in time. You get the kids that … let’s say they’re doing it in sixth grade, in fifth grade, they’re going, ‘Next year we get the salmon.’ It’s something they look forward to.”

The program is available at the elementary, middle and high school level.

For more information, visit www.michigan.gov/sic.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.