Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series that will follow Kalifornsky Beach Elementary school teacher Bill Vedders and his third grade students through the coho salmon life cycle.
Gideon Jackson had seen, caught and eaten plenty of fish but — judging by the disgusted look on his face — nothing prepared him for putting his hand inside of one and scraping her eggs into a bucket.
At least not in front of nearly 60 of his Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School classmates on the first day of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s “Salmon in the Classroom” curriculum at a site in Anchor Point.
Jackson shrugged when he talked about how “gross” the whole thing felt.
“I was already up there and I didn’t want to be a poor sport,” he said. “It felt like I had my hand in someone’s mouth.”
Jackson wasn’t the only one making faces as two coho salmon were induced to spawn in front of the group.
Third-grade teacher Bill Vedders stepped in to calm the group which — despite many exclamations of “ew” and “gross” — pressed in closer to the table to see the spawning in action.
Vedders’ class and another third-grade class from K-Beach joined 750 students from 30 schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District at the beginning of a curriculum targeted at teaching students about the life cycle and biology of Pacific salmon.
After the spawning, each class takes about 250 eggs and covered in milt, the seminal fluid of male fish, and puts them in a tank full of water to incubate for the winter.
“Sometime in November you’re going to see two little black dots develop in that egg,” said Jenny Cope, fisheries biologist. “This is your little fish starting to grow in that egg and as this little fish is moving around and turning, while he’s doing that he’s secreting an enzyme that is just making the egg soft.”
Several hands shot into the air when Cope asked what was going to happen next.
“That’s right, he’s going to pop out of that egg, just like a chicken hatching out of its egg,” Cope said.
Thousands of Alaskan students take part in the curriculum every year and Cope said Fish and Game had programs in Kodiak, the Southeast portion of the state, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Mat-Su.
Most of the students, she said, are elementary school students although the curriculum can be adapted to middle and high school students.
After the K-Beach students wandered through stations set up to show them the salmon life-cycle, including a tank packed with fry, it was lunch time.
Vedders walked through groups of students clustered along the shore of the Anchor River talking about his 13th year of participating in the program.
“These kids get to do real life things that most kids in the country just get to watch on video or YouTube or something,” he said. “These kids get to actually experience and see the life cycle.”
Throughout the year, Vedders said he’ll tie in stories about the community, culture and history on the Kenai Peninsula as he teaches about the importance of salmon.
“We have families in our schools that are commercial fishermen that are dependent on the salmon; we have families in our school that are fishing guides that depend on salmon,” Vedders said. “It’s to get these kids to appreciate what they have instead of, ‘Oh, it’s just a salmon you know.’ That’s the goal is to make them stewards of the future of the salmon on the Peninsula.”
Logan Shane, 8, said he liked being outside because he enjoyed science, although he had a hard time narrowing down what he liked best.
“Magnets, fish, animals. I don’t know. What’s inside of animals; what’s inside of things. Like, what’s inside of plants, what’s inside of rocks, what’s inside of frogs,” he said.
He learned several new things about salmon.
“A boy has like, a hook nose and a girl doesn’t have that much of it and, there are like 2,500 eggs in there. There’s a lot of eggs,” Shane said. “They feel gooey, like, have you been to the yogurt place? You know those balls with fruit inside? It’s kind of like that. You can squish it all over you.”
Jackson said the eggs were warm and cold as he pushed them out of the coho.
He said he had eaten salmon in the past, but he didn’t think of eating fish as he helped spawn the salmon.
“It made me think of eating something else,” he said.
His queasiness didn’t stop him from standing up on a log to get a better look at a tank full of fry before heading to lunch.
“It’s cool because you get to see new things instead of people showing you on pieces of paper, you can actually see it,” he said.
Fish and Game biologists visit the classrooms and dissect salmon, take the students ice-fishing and eventually host a salmon celebration in the spring where students are given the opportunity to release fry, Cope said.
The active-learning curriculum gives students a chance to engage with a part of their environment they can take for granted, Vedders said.
“Just about every kid has cleaned a fish, but they don’t really pay attention, they just take what they want and throw the carcass in the river,” she said.
“We really get in and look at the swim bladder and the different reproductive parts and get hands on. We pop out the eyeballs and look at that. Anytime you do something hands on and the kids are more actively involved its more meaningful.“
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.