Dissections, a rite of educational passage for students young and old, don’t really raise eyebrows among the learners at Fireweed Academy in Homer. In essence, Alaska curriculum is not for the faint of heart.
Fireweed students in third through sixth grade dug right in last week, getting their hands dirty, literally, while exploring the innards of several salmon. It was all part of the Salmon in the Classroom program, which the school has participated in for the last five years, said third and fourth grade teacher Jon Kulhanek.
“They just can’t wait to dive in, so to speak,” he said of the students.
The program is run by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Sport Fish and reaches students all across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Teachers and schools can opt into the program, and members of Fish and Game travel to various communities to put on projects throughout the year.
It starts with an “egg take” in the fall at the beginning of the school year. Those eggs are ferried carefully back to classrooms, where students watch them grow into fry. Then, it’s on to the ice fishing day, held at a local lake, where students get hands on experience catching the grown-up versions of the salmon in their classrooms.
This is followed by a salmon dissection project, like the one at Fireweed. It all comes to a head in the spring when students participate in a Salmon Celebration by releasing their fry into a local stocked lake.
An interesting aspect of the dissections, Kulhanek said, is that the project is not simplified for the younger students participating or ramped up for the sixth graders. Tim Blackman with Fish and Game always does a great job of leading all the students through the dissections with the same information and exposure.
“The kids at all levels amaze me with the interest they’ve got in the process,” Kulhanek said. “And where you might think that you might be in a room full of squeamish kids, these Alaska kids are not that at all.”
This year, the focus was very much on the insides of the fish, Kulhanek said, including their reproductive, digestive and cardiovascular systems.
“The overall objective was just to realize how all the systems function together within a salmon, and then to start to break apart the whole into its smaller sections,” Kulhanek said.
In other years, the focus has been more on the external. This means that students in the higher grades who have been through the project several times get a slightly new experience each time.
“It just kind of depends on what direction they decide to take with the curriculum,” Kulhanek said.
Fireweed Academy picks a new theme for each quarter. The theme during the dissections was currents, so the project was connected to the curriculum in terms of how salmon utilize currents when going out to sea and later returning into the mouths of rivers, Kulhanek said. When it comes to the students understanding the biology and habits of salmon, Kulhanek said the Salmon in the Classroom project seems to confirm what many of them already know about the fish from their everyday lives. Many have parents who fish or have been fishing themselves.
“I think it reinforces so much of what they thing they already know about salmon, just because it’s such an important part of life in Alaska and in Homer,” he said.