Program gives students a peek at salmon anatomy

An inside look

Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a series that will follow Kalifornsky Beach Elementary school teacher Bill Vedders and his third grade students through the Pacific salmon life cycle.


It smelled like old fish in Bill Vedders’ third-grade classroom Thursday at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary.

Inside, streaks of blood, fish eggs, swim bladders, milt sacks and gooey-fingered children added to the scent as students learned about the anatomy of Pacific salmon from an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist as part of the “Salmon in the Classroom” curriculum.

The biologist who led the interactive lesson, Jenny Cope, covered several parts of the fish’s anatomy, encouraging students to reach inside and pull out each organ to feel its texture and guess its use.

As she cut each fish open for tables surrounded by curious students, several backed away or shouted “ew,” but each invariably moved toward a carcass and explored its shape and smell during the class.

“They always do that,” Cope said. “Towards the end ... the kids were coming up to me with their bloody hands, wanting to give me a high five.”

Cope said the “Salmon in the Classroom” curriculum is utilized by several grade levels, but the younger students learn the basic anatomy during their dissection classes.

“I show them these parts ... I don’t necessarily go into function because that would just be too much information,” Cope said. “But a lot of teachers ... they’ll come get fish from us and do a more in-depth internal anatomy information.”

Vedders’ class joins 750 students from more than 30 schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in using the curriculum.

Cope will travel to about 20 schools on the central Kenai Peninsula conducting dissections.

Each school participated in an egg take earlier in the semester and have aquariums with the still-developing salmon for students to examine.

Students will also be given the opportunity to go ice fishing and the curriculum will end in the spring with a fry release.

Thousands of Alaskan students take part in the curriculum and Cope said Fish and Game had programs in Kodiak, the Southeast portion of the state, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Mat-Su.

“We’re dissecting salmons,” said Cadence Harvey, 9. “We’ve been sticking our hands inside the fish.”

She squinted squinted her eyes and rubbed her fingers together as she tried to recall what the inside of the fish felt like before finally deciding on “gooey.”

Cope had the group identify the gill plate of the fish.

“It’s got a fancier name ... but I’m not going to have you memorize that,” Cope said. “Why don’t you go ahead and feel your gill cover on your fish?”

At Riley Johnson’s table, one student got a little exuberant as he pushed on the gill plate.

“I didn’t like it because then my buddy he was pushing the thing and blood was pouring on the table,” Johnson said afterward. “(I’m) kinda grossed out.”

Still, Johnson said his favorite part of the day ‘being with his friends and dissecting stuff.”

Both Harvey and Johnson were familiar with the insides of a salmon.

Johnson said he and his dad fly-fish.

“Sometimes we dissect them because we want to look at the parts,” he said.

While both students said the fish blood smelled gross, only Harvey demurred when asked if she would eat salmon again.

Johnson was unperturbed. “It tastes good.”

Rashah McChesney can be reached at


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