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"Salmon-in-the-Classroom" is a Fishy Success

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Springtime means education season here at Putah Creek Council, and one of our bigger programs – Salmon-in-the-Classroom – is wrapping up for the year. This was our third year offering salmon and steelhead education to local students. We’re thrilled to be able to teach so many young people about California’s native salmon and steelhead and make the connection to the Chinook salmon that are increasingly coming up Putah Creek in late fall to spawn. 

Our Salmon-in-the-Classroom curriculum and program is supported by contributions from Council donors and sponsorships from the Water Resources Association of Yolo County, Pacific Gas and Electric, and First Northern Bank. 

In Salmon-in-the-Classroom, students learn about the life cycle, ecology, and importance of native California salmonids while raising Chinook salmon or steelhead trout in their classrooms. Local teachers receive fish eggs from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and tanks from Fly Fishers of Davis. Their students get to see the fish hatch and grow every school day, and the fish provide a handy teaching tool. Council education staff deliver lessons in which students explore connections between people and trout, or poke through trout innards and discover the uses of different fins. We discuss the many ways in which components of our ecosystem are connected, and where fish (and humans) fit in. In 7th grade, we experienced first-hand some of the hazards that fish face, and were surprised at how few fish survive to adulthood.

These lessons prepare students for, and build upon, field trips to two vastly different fish nurseries. Younger students visited Knaggs Ranch in the Yolo Bypass, where we learned how rice farmers and fish researchers are working together to manage water and land so many different creatures can use it – finned, feathered, and human. We saw shorebirds foraging in rice fields, fingerling salmon growing fat on a zooplankton feast, and experienced how poorly-sheltered the Bypass is in a rainstorm. 

The 7th graders visited the Nimbus Hatchery in Rancho Cordova, where we talked more in-depth about how salmon and trout are managed in California. Students got to see what a big salmon river looks like, feed rainbow trout, and observe the impacts of a dam up close.

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Finally, after 6-8 weeks of an aquarium humming away in their classroom, the students venture to the American River to release their carefully-tended fish. Placing “ambassador fish” in a classroom is a delightfully effective teaching tool – the fish grow and are released similar to how they would be raised in a hatchery, and they get the same start in life. But at the same time, they colonize the hearts of the students who raise them and help form a lifelong memory. Really, the fish do most of the work - all we do is step in to add some details and deepen that connection.

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What we’re hoping is that if these students keep that connection, or if they know even a few facts about their local, native fish – what they are, what they do, why they are important – they will come back to the creek not just a more educated visitor, but a more conscientious one as well.
 
In the last classroom lesson for the Winters 7th grade science class, we discussed challenges that salmon and steelhead face – ranging from short-term obstacles, like predators and food supply, to long-term problems like habitat loss, climate change, and human overpopulation. For their final assignment, the students wrote an essay answering the question, “How can my choices positively impact steelhead populations?” Winters’ 7th graders rose to the challenge, and I’m confident that their steelhead will know a better world for it.