Something’s fishy

Robert Youngs

As children, we're happily amused and enlightened when we're told that fish swim in schools.

A program facilitated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is inadvertently redefining that.

The program, Salmon in the Classroom, allows Michigan students to raise, care for, and release salmon into their local watersheds. Increasing in popularity since its inception just over a decade ago, over 100 schools participated during the 2008 to 2009 school year.

Shana McMillan, a park interpreter for the DNR, said that the program was very small when it first started. “It started back in 1994 and it had been available out west for a long time,” McMillan said.

“It was something that started as a collaborative effort,” she added. McMillan said she got involved for about four years as a coordinator.

McMillan said 125 schools are participating this year.

Mattawan High School is one of the local participating schools. It also was one of the 102 schools that participated with the Salmon in the Classroom program in the 2008 to 2009 school year.

Students in biology instructor Kari Hoikka’s classes have been participating for the last three school years.

Hoikka used to work for the DNR as a fisheries biologist. She said she had always wanted to do the project but never getting around to it.

“The kids were really excited,” said Hoikka. “There's not a lot in the biology curriculum that's hands-on,” she added.

The program is very selective.

Educators wishing to participate in the program must apply through the DNR. Schools that are deemed to have the greatest impact on their students are selected first.

Start-up costs range from $800 to $1,000, and the equipment purchases must be independently funded. Educators can seek grants or local sponsor partnerships to help with financing.

“The hardest thing is to get the initial funding for the project, for the chiller and the tank,” McMillan said. Hoikka's initial financing help came from what she calls an ironic source.

“I wrote a grant and asked money from the Paw Paw Conservation Club,” said Hoikka, mentioning that she went outside of her own community to neighboring Paw Paw. “I wrote to them and asked if they would be willing to support me financially to go ahead and do this,” she added.

The club, made up of outdoors enthusiasts, hunters, and fishermen, agreed, and gave Hoikka a “sizeable” donation of $541. “Their 50/50 raffle winner that night also donated that night,” added Hoikka.

Hoikka said she also found pet stores to be pretty friendly. “I found a guy at one of the local pet stores who was pretty excited about the project and gave me his manager's discount,” she said.

Fish eggs, food, and training are provided by the DNR, but no equipment is provided.

Some of the basic equipment needed include a minimum 55-gallon aquarium, a filter, a pump, and a chiller to keep the water near 47 to 52 degrees so that the fish eggs develop and hatch properly. The aquarium must simulate a flowing river.

Hoikka uses a 55-gallon aquarium in her classroom. The aquarium is fitted with two filters and two power heads that pump 450 gallons of water per hour to simulate the river.

Once the eggs hatch, the aquarium must be cleaned weekly as the fish start to feed and produce waste. Hoikka and her students share responsibility for feeding the fish and maintaining the tank. Mattawan High’s maintenance staff cares for the tank when school is not in session for more than two days.

Hoikka said that the tangible experiences are something some kids really enjoy. The students are responsible for documenting and recording everything done with the tank, including feeding and maintenance.

“We have so many kids that are such indoor kids,” she said. “It's amazing to me how many kids do not know anything about the ecosystems around their own homes.”

“This is really exciting to them,” added Hoikka. Hoikka said she incorporates the program into her daily lesson by relating what's relevant to the topic at hand.

Shortly into Hoikka’s third academic year of participation, the kids are really excited again since a freak accident in May resulted in a die-off of all of the fish they planned to release. “You find out the kids who really care,” said Hoikka. “There were kids that were just devastated.” Hoikka said that there were some students who didn't quite grasp the concept of a die off and that she had to do some explaining.

“We're in a fairly affluent school system,” Hoikka said. “Some kids understood, but some kids were just like, 'Can't you just fix it?'”

“Die-offs are a natural part of the process,” said McMillan. “Teachers talk about why it happened; they talk about what kinds of things would happen in the wild,” she added.

Despite this year's accident, Hoikka was successful with the program in her first year with it, which was the 2007 to 2008 school year. Out of 200 eggs, her classes released 92 salmon into the Paw Paw River in 2008.

Hoikka said that a personal friend of hers owns property along the river and allows her and her students access to it. She said she's selective with who she brings along so that nothing happens to her friend's property, and thus, chooses to release fish after school hours.

She also mentioned that the right to release fish into a waterway must be obtained from the DNR much like the right to remove fish from a waterway.

In spite of the failure in May, she's experienced a lot of positives with it, as well.

The Mattawan Consolidated School District gave her the green light when she had the funding secured to get started. The district even obliged in picking up some of the additional costs incurred.

One of Hoikka's former students who participated in the first year of her participation in the program really stood out. “He participated in a project where he presented to the [Paw Paw] Conservation Club; now he's at Northern Michigan exploring what he wants to do,” said Hoikka.

“Another one of my students is now at the Lyman Briggs School at [Michigan State],” she said. “I can't take full credit, but they were really involved with the project,” Hoikka added.

Hoikka also said that while the Mattawan Consolidated School District offers plenty of programs, she believes parents could be doing more. “We're so lucky to live in the Great Lakes State,” she said. “Sometimes we don't take the time to make our kids aware of it.”

Schools wishing to apply for entrance into the program cannot do so until Jan. 1. First-time participants must attend a mandatory workshop where they learn how to take care of the fish.

While the DNR handles the application and selection process, it does not handle technical support. Schools must rely on their maintenance staffs to fix broken equipment and to feed the fish and clean the tanks during breaks.

"The program is extremely exciting," said McMillan. "It's such an awesome opportunity for students to see this," she added.

"It's so hands-on," McMillan said. "There are so many ways you can get kids outside from fishing to macroinvertebrate programs."

Although McMillan said the program served about 13,000 students last year, she would like to see it expand. "We would like to see more [schools] participating," she said. "The [Upper Peninsula] has some schools that will be participating. We would like to see it in more places."

Even so, McMillan thinks the program is doing well now.

"There previously wasn't a uniform way to do things," McMillan said. "I think a lot of what classes and students learn [from the program] is in the benchmarks and standards and it fits really well," she added.

"We work with a lot of groups, we work with a lot of schools, and they all enjoy it," said McMillan.

For Hoikka, who earned her undergraduate degree in biology from Western Michigan in 1991, her mission is simple.

“I try to bring in as much nature as I can into my classroom as possible,” she said. With a little extra interest, fish will continue to swim inside of real schools for a very long time.

Educators wishing to learn more about the program can do so by visiting the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' website at