Chinook salmon returning to the Nisqually River to die served one last function for students in North Thurston Public Schools, who dissected the fish this week as part of life science and biology classes.
A student crew from each of the district’s four high schools had “earned” the fish by working at the Clear Creek Hatchery.
“We thought it was a fish hatchery field trip,” said Alex Tollefson, a senior at North Thurston High School. “But it turned out to be really hands on.”
The students milked the male fish to gather the sperm, which was mixed with buckets of eggs stripped from the female fish. The fish were killed with a blow to the head, but some required a second blow, the students said. That was the hardest part, “when you grab them and they’re not knocked out all the way,” said Samantha Weisel, a junior at North Thurston High.
Fish that were too small to reproduce were set aside for the dissection program.
In Tina Hinman’s third-period biology class at North Thurston, teams of three faced their fish, laid out in a white tray. Equipped with gloves and an array of dissection tools, they made the first incision. Curious, and sometimes wary, students commented on how the slimy fish were hard to hold. But soon, guided step-by-step to find the reproductive organs, the liver and the heart, enthusiasm grew.
Sophomore Serah Noyes was buzzing with excitement, but her hands were steady. “I bet this is the heart. ... Oh my god! I found its heart! This is amazing!”
It’s this kind of engagement Jim Stanton was hoping for when he started organizing the program as a volunteer in 2007. Stanton, now retired from state government, said, “To get kids engaged, you have to have something hands on. Book learning is one thing, then they get a chance to use it.”
Students do something and see a result, Stanton said, as they realize that the math and writing skills they’ve learned are necessary to document the dissection.
Students also get a perspective on ecology and life cycles. Because the salmon are at the end of their lives, it was easier to think about the benefit of collecting and fertilizing eggs, and then dissecting the smaller fish.
“In a way, we were helping them,” Weisel said.
“We get more fish our way than in actual nature,” added Cole Macke, a junior.
The program is a partnership with the Nisqually Tribe Natural Resources department, the Nisqually River Foundation, and the school district. This year, 25 students worked under the guidance of the Clear Creek Hatchery staff. Clear Creek contributed 422 fish for dissection, and another 192 fish came from Tumwater Falls Hatchery. Those fish were used for dissection by more than 2,000 students, Stanton estimates. The fish are then composted at the Land Lab, a small farm the district operates.
Hatchery field crew supervisor Nano Perez said the students got experience with possible job opportunities. “It’s a very good education tool,” he said, “and it’s really nice to have the help.”
The hatchery releases 4 million Chinook a year to support tribal and sport fishing, Perez said.
“There is a strong emphasis in the new Next Generation Science Standards to initiate work with local community partners for authentic learning opportunities. The experience our students had working with the tribe’s biologist at the hatchery was truly engaging in real citizens science,” said Dixie Reimer, science instructional coach for NTPS.
The exercise opened up possibilities for students.
“I’d like to do more like that,” Tollefson said. “Maybe go through college in biology.”
And Noyes, who wants to be a cardiologist, looks forward to more dissections. “A human would be awesome,” she said.