STEM Education

Salmon Summit

Researchers virtually bring STEM education into the classroom

woman with blonde curly hair in green shirt holding clear cup with fish in it

Stephanie Liss, an Earth scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), holds a juvenile salmon that was raised at the Aquatic Research Laboratory. Liss and other PNNL 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 women in green shirts and and masks
Alison Colotelo, a research scientist and project manager at PNNL, talks to students via Zoom from the Salmon Summit. Megan Nims, a PNNL fisheries biologist, reaches for the next fish to be implanted with a tag. (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. Traditionally, the curriculum culminates with the release of the salmon into the Columbia River. The event is known as Salmon Summit.

With COVID-19 restrictions preventing in-person events, researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory  (PNNL) held a virtual Salmon Summit on Friday, May 14. Staff at PNNL tagged and released 500 juvenile salmon, raised at PNNL's Aquatic Research Laboratory, into the Columbia River as 40 classrooms tuned in via livestream broadcast. PNNL researchers held eight Zoom sessions with public and private elementary school classrooms from Richland, Kennewick, Prosser, Sunnyside, Whitstran, and Mansfield to answer questions from students. 

The event was well-received by students and teachers alike. Teachers were appreciative of the opportunity to connect students to science in such an unprecedented year with COVID-19. Several teachers reported having extremely enthusiastic students who were in "salmon heaven."


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) ​


A researcher implants a tag into a juvenile salmon so the fish can be tracked as it travels in the Columbia River. (Photo by Andrea Starr | 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.

Since the release of the salmon, 47 different fish have been detected. Within two days of Salmon Summit, five were detected at McNary Dam. Five salmon were detected at Bonneville Dam five days after their release, which means they swam 52 river kilometers each day. 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 likely swam another route on their way to the ocean.

two women in green shirts and masks stand by the river
Colotelo and Rachel Little, outreach coordinator and fish biologist with the Benton Conservation District, partnered to put on this year's Salmon Summit. ​​(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

The Benton Conservation District donated the tags used to track the fish, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Water Power Technologies Office sponsored the STEM-focused outreach 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 who are tagged are eaten.