“Salmon in the Classroom” inaugural year at Sacred Heart Academy goes swimmingly 

High school student shows elementary student smolts, or young salmon

Danielle McGrew Tenbusch 
Diocese of Saginaw Office of Catholic Schools 

Jill Albaugh had a wish. More specifically, she had several “wish list” items. To her surprise, generous Sacred Heart Academy alumni stepped in immediately to grant her wish— and more.  

“I always wanted to hatch the salmon and have them in the classroom and the cost was ... very high,” said Albaugh, who has taught science for 27 years at both public and Catholic schools.  

Raising salmon in the classroom would provide a valuable hands-on educational experience and a science class relevant to outdoors-loving Michiganders. It would also offer cross-curricular opportunities for both high school and elementary students.  

Last year, a colleague suggested she apply for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Salmon in the Classroom program. After she was accepted, she had to provide proof of funding— the aspect she was most concerned about.  

But she also knew that there was an opportunity, as Sacred Heart enjoys strong donor support. 

So, she gave it a try. Albaugh added a 75-gallon tank, filtration system, chiller and aquarium maintenance items to her wish list, totaling about $1,700.  

"Within two days, a donor had emailed [the person who manages the wish list] and said that he had sent a check for the full amount to cover the entire program,” she said. “It got even better ... some other donors stepped in and wanted to add more to it.” 

Sacred Heart also established an entire class devoted to wildlife and fisheries, giving Albaugh the opportunity to craft a course for high schoolers. The DNR provided educational opportunities for her to learn to care for salmon, as well as classroom resources. Parent volunteer Brian Boge also helped with the initial tank setup. 

The additional financial support enabled Albaugh to take her students on trips to watch the DNR harvest eggs and to release the salmon, as well as a webcam so students could observe the salmon remotely. The elementary students particularly enjoyed the opportunity. 

"The little kids love animals,” she said. "The live feed was probably one of the best (ways) to keep (students) tied to the progression of the salmon. The kids, I think, have bought into it and taken ownership and love to watch them on camera.” 

The eggs were harvested at a weir between Cadillac and Manistee on Oct. 5, where the salmon have swum upstream to spawn. About four weeks later, picked up a bag of 125 fertilized eggs, all with tiny dots that were the salmon’s eyes. Visual confirmation of the salmon inside the egg increased their chances of survival. 

Over the next six months, Albaugh’s class of 16 carefully monitored the tank’s water temperature and quality, fed the growing fish with DNR-supplied food and cleaned the tank by siphoning out debris. 

The high school students also invited the elementary students over twice to view the fish in person and present lessons on the salmon’s life cycle. Between the live feed and lessons with the high schoolers, the elementary students also learned relevant vocabulary terms, about invasive species and salmon migration. 

“I think it's really cool that we get to teach the elementary (students) something different,” said Molly Siler, a junior who joined the class in the second semester and hopes to become an elementary teacher. 

Like many of her classmates, Molly gravitated towards the aspects of the class that most interested her and applied to her potential future career. 

 “The role that I played is I've helped communicate with the elementary (staff) and made the presentations and helped facilitate what's going on during each presentation that we have for the elementary (students),” she said. 

Bryce French, a senior, set up the plumbing for the tank and has worked to solve unexpected hiccups, such as air pockets in the filter. He is currently a plumber’s apprentice and plans to pursue a career in plumbing.  

“This kind of thing is right up my alley,” he said. “Recently we've been having some filter issues, so even having to make sure it's running every day, and at the beginning we had to get the chiller figured out so the water temperature stays between 52 and 56 degrees.” 

Bryce and fellow senior Roman Addison describe themselves as “the maintenance guys.” 

“We siphon out the tank; we have to make sure everything's cleaned from the bottom. We’re the emergency water testers if anything's going wrong; we're pulling the fish out if they pass; we're filling the water changing it,” Roman described. “It’s definitely a commitment!” 

Along with their classmates, they check the water’s pH, temperature, hardness and nitrate levels. If the tests show a problem, such as poor water quality, they work together to find a solution, such as draining part of the tank to refill with fresh water. 

“Hands-on educational experiences provide real-life opportunities for our students,” said Mary Kay Yonker, principal. “The responsibility the students took for the fish was amazing! When Mrs. Albaugh was away on medical leave, the students assumed full responsibility for making sure the water was regulated, the fish tank was clean and the fish were fed. When issues arose with water quality and immediate remediation had to occur to save the fish, the students sprang into action, knowing exactly what to do. The problem-solving skills the students learned will last a lifetime." 

By the time the class released the salmon on May 2, more than 80 young fish, called smolts, had survived. Each measured about four to five inches long when they were released into the DNR-approved waterway south of Croton Dam near Newaygo. Hundreds of classes across Michigan are releasing their salmon raised through the program in waterways across the state this spring. 

The class carefully considered potential risks to transporting the smolts and prepared an ice bath to surround the buckets along with a battery-powered bubbler to maintain the water quality. All the salmon survived transport to the Muskegon River. 

"We were given a stocking permit that allowed us to complete the release,” Albaugh explained. “We had to add river water to the buckets to help acclimate the salmon to the very cold temp(erature). Each student was required to take a cup full of fish to the water and release. I wanted it to be closure of the project for them." 

After each student had that opportunity, the remaining fish were released from buckets into the river. Several students brought their fishing gear and taught their peers how to fish. In a video created to share with the elementary students, the high schoolers transfer the salmon into five-gallon buckets. After arriving at the river, the lids are removed, and students are heard exclaiming with excitement that the fish are “alive and well!” 

Wading in the shallow riverbank, students take turns dipping a foam cup into the bucket, scooping up the smolts. As they lower the cup towards the water, the fish begin jumping into the river. After the final fish were released, the students clap and cheer. 

“I am amazed how the kids have taken ownership and ownership of the care of the salmon, and then ownership of teaching the younger kids what they've learned,” Albaugh said. "I want to see the elementary kids looking forward to being part of it as they get older.” 

The high schoolers are thankful for the opportunity. 

“This is a super interesting class,” said Walker Owen, a junior. “It's been super fun to have the hands-on approach and be able to really run this class with our teacher. We've been learning with Mrs. Albaugh. It's been great through this entire process.” 

Principal Yonker pointed out that the fisheries class is an example what is possible with the support of the Sacred Heart Academy Foundation and donors paired with the dedication and enthusiasm of educators.  

“The fisheries class was supported by donors who are interested in students having the best possible STEM experiences, with real life applications. We cannot thank them enough for what they have provided for our students; not just the high school students, but all of the elementary students who got to come to the lab and be taught by the high schoolers in the fisheries class,” she said. “Without the support of donors, none of this would have been possible.” 

Albaugh said she feels honored that donors believed in the value of the project, and she is seeing its impact ripple throughout the grades. She recalled one kindergartener, Norman, whose enthusiasm bubbled up and overflowed as he shared what he has learned while fishing with his father and grandfather.  

“This little guy was really excited about being here— and I was just excited as he was that he had so much knowledge!” she said. “I have a group of kids that this is what they love. It's great to be able to offer it to them.”