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)

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)

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.

At this year's Salmon Summit, hundreds of students were able to attend in person and even more students in Washington and Oregon tuned in to the virtual livestream on April 17 and 18. 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. 

This video details the process of tracking the salmon on their journey to the ocean and 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. 

A week after Salmon Summit 2022, 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.

PNNL researchers raised 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)

The Benton Conservation District organized the broader Salmon Summit in-person event and supported recruitment of classrooms for the livestream 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. 


Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff at Salmon Summit 2023 discuss the many career paths available to support fish passage and water power. (Video by Eddie Pablo | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)


Take the lessons even further 

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

  • 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)
    A student looks on as a researcher shows how to tag a juvenile salmon.
    Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers demonstrate how to tag juvenile salmon during the Salmon Summit. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)