STEM Education

Salmon Summit

Researchers move STEM education outside

An elementary school student watches as a scientist tags a juvenile salmon with a small tracking device.

A student looks on as Jill Janak, an Earth scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, holds a juvenile salmon that was raised at the Aquatic Research Laboratory. Janak and other fish researchers released 500 fish into the Columbia River as part of Salmon Summit, an educational program offering elementary schools an opportunity to learn about the life cycle of salmon. 

(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Two elementary school children smile as they look into a plastic tub filled with juvenile salmon.
Students watch as Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff explain how salmon are tagged and tracked during the 2022 Salmon Summit. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Every year, fourth and fifth graders from across Eastern Washington raise fish as part of the Salmon in the Classroom curriculum. Salmon in the Classroom is sponsored by the Benton Conservation District, an organization that  stewards conservation practices involving soil, water, air, fish, and wildlife in Benton County, Washington. The Salmon in the Classroom unit allows students to hatch salmon eggs at school, study salmon life cycle and habitat, and learn to test water quality. The curriculum culminates with the release of the salmon into the Columbia River in an event known as Salmon Summit.

Teachers and students share their experiences during the 2022 Salmon Summit, where Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers partnered with the Benton Conservation District to tag and release 500 juvenile salmon. (Video by Edward Pablo | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

For the first time since 2019, over 400 students were able to attend the Salmon Summit in person and 3,600 students from 144 classrooms across the state tuned in to the virtual livestream on April 26. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) staff demonstrated the tagging and release of 500 juvenile salmon, raised at PNNL's Aquatic Research Laboratory, into the Columbia River. Students from public and private elementary school classrooms in Richland, Kennewick, Gig Harbor, and Bremerton participated in the event in person or virtually. 

Researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory partnered with the Benton Conservation District to put on a virtual Salmon Summit event in May 2021. The research team tagged and released 500 juvenile salmon, which were raised at the Aquatic Research Laboratory. The video details the process of tracking the salmon on their journey to the ocean as well as the role of researchers in studying fish passage/hydropower. (Video by Graham Bourque | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) ​

Each fish was implanted with a passive tag, known as a PIT tag, that has a unique code that allows researchers to identify fish throughout their life. Certain passage routes at downstream dams have detection equipment to identify fish as they swim by. PNNL is monitoring these detections using a centralized database called PTAGIS and will continue to report on progress. 

Within a week of Salmon Summit, four fish were detected at McNary Dam. Two months after the release of the salmon, 60 fish had been detected. Fish can only be detected if they pass through the juvenile bypass systems at the dams. Typically, 5 to 10 percent of fish use these routes, so the other fish that weren't detected likely swam another route on their way to the ocean.

As part of the salmon life cycle, juvenile salmon migrate from freshwater to the ocean to spawn. Researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory raised 500 salmon at the Aquatic Research Laboratory and released the fish into the Columbia River. Each fish was implanted with a passive tag to allow scientists to track their movements and receive information about when a fish passes through a hydropower dam or reaches the ocean. (Animation by Stephanie King | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
A student releases a tagged juvenile salmon into the tube that will transport it to the river below.
A student gently releases a tagged salmon into the tube that will transport it to the Columbia River during the Salmon Summit. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

The Benton Conservation District organized the broader Salmon Summit in-person event and supported recruitment of classrooms for the live stream event, and the. Department of Energy's Water Power Technologies Office sponsored PNNL’s PIT tagging station and the live stream event. The City of Kennewick supported this event by allowing access at Columbia Park. Researchers fielded questions about salmon biology and the tagging process, education and careers in biology, Earth sciences, engineering, and science communications. The most popular questions were about predators and what happens when salmon that are tagged are eaten. 

Take the lessons even further 

A researcher point out where tagged fish are released into the river as an elementary school student looks on.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researcher Ben Vaage points out where students can see the salmon they just released enter the Columbia River. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Check out the classroom activities aligned with Washington state math learning standards that were developed to compliment the activities demonstrated at Salmon Summit: