Bridging Boundaries: Detroit’s Urban Youth and Michigan’s Wilderness Unite in the Classroom

Salmon in the Classroom: A Unique Wildlife Education Initiative, Fueled by Michigan Wildlife Council, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and Real Times Media

By Lynzee Mychael, Multimedia Journalist

Envision vibrant urban classrooms, alive with the natural rhythm of nature, allowing students to emerge as custodians of Michigan’s aquatic treasures. Picture the educational landscape transformed beyond traditional confines, dismantling barriers between the urban sprawl and the unconcealed wonders of the wild. In an extraordinary collaboration involving the Michigan Wildlife Council, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Real Times Media, a Detroit-based English Language Arts teacher is helping reshape the educational narrative. This groundbreaking initiative unfolds as a vibrant ecosystem, where students actively participate in raising salmon from eggs to release, presenting a hands-on approach that transcends textbooks and lectures.

Monica DeGarmo, an English Language Arts Teacher at the Academy of the Americas High School, is pioneering this unique wildlife education initiative.  DeGarmo ‘s journey into wildlife education began unexpectedly during a field trip to the Belle Isle Water Festival in Fall 2022. The catalyst? A student-led impromptu search for crawdads during a canoeing adventure on Lake Okonoka. DeGarmo shares her experience, stating, ” For context, this is a student who was often unmotivated in class and out of nowhere, being in nature shined a whole new light on who he is as a person and the wealth of knowledge and skills that he had to share. He was in his element. I think one of the most exciting things about being a teacher is building relationships with your students and finding creative ways to make what we’re learning interesting and relevant to them.”

This encounter sparked the idea of bringing the outdoors into the classroom, creating a bridge between urban students and Michigan’s rich ecosystems. “This has been a pretty cool way to spark student engagement and get to know my students in a new light,” said DeGarmo. “I’d also add it’s been a unique way to build community. I now have students who I don’t even have in class come by my room to check on the fish.”

Setting up a 75-gallon fish tank in a classroom was no small feat, especially for a teacher without prior experience. DeGarmo candidly admits, “I started having nightmares of my classroom floor being flooded from our tank!” However, a testament to the students’ resourcefulness, DeGarmo proudly shares, “Many of our students are in robotics or career trades programs like auto-mechanics. It was incredible to see how resourceful they were in reading through manuals and finding tutorial videos on YouTube.” The journey from overwhelm to empowerment is a key success story within the program.

Beyond the hands-on experience, DeGarmo seamlessly integrates messages of wildlife management and conservation into her English Language Arts curriculum. The timing aligns with the students’ “Mini Social Action Campaign Project,” where they delve into social justice issues related to climate change and the environment. DeGarmo highlights the role of guest speakers from organizations like Detroit Outdoors and The Greening of Detroit, reinforcing the connection between classroom learning and real-world applications.

Franklin Hayes, Deputy Chief and Michigan Wildlife Council member, sheds light on the transformative impact of the “Salmon in the Classroom” program on Detroit’s urban landscape. He emphasizes, “It’s an amazing opportunity for Metro Detroit, specifically Detroit because this type of exposure and experience is a very untraditional experience for students and early learners.”

Collaborating with local authorities and schools, Hayes reveals how the Michigan Wildlife Council is working tirelessly to promote awareness about the crucial roles of hunting and fishing in wildlife conservation. He states, “We’re continuing to explore opportunities to educate not just in our community, but especially in areas where enjoying wildlife and the outdoors may not be as commonplace.” The collaboration extends to law enforcement, with initiatives fostering positive relationships between the Detroit Police Department and educational institutions. “As a community, we have an opportunity to grow together and learn together,” Hayes affirms.

Tracy Page, Aquatic Education Coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), brings a unique perspective to the discussion. She explores the broader significance of programs like “Salmon in the Classroom,” emphasizing the concept of “a sense of place” in environmental education. Through raising Chinook salmon, students at the Academy of the Americas High School gain insights into Great Lakes ecology, food webs, invasive species, and more. Page envisions a lasting impact, stating, “Hopefully, those students bring their families back to share their knowledge and love for that place.”

Page praises the collaboration between the DNR and educational institutions, highlighting the unique aspects of the “Salmon in the Classroom” program. With over 300 participating teachers, the program connects students with guest speakers, introducing them to potential careers and concepts previously unknown. Page shares her hopes for the long-term impact of such initiatives, stating, “We of course hope that all students gain an appreciation for our amazing natural resources and take advantage of our fishing, hunting and recreation opportunities. Anecdotally, we hear from many families that take the SIC program to heart, and as a family explore the outdoors more. I hope to look at the long-term impacts on SIC participants in my dissertation, really getting to understand what students get from the program and how that translates into behaviors, hobbies, education, and careers as they reach adulthood.”

Using Chinook salmon as ambassadors, students can delve into topics such as species population monitoring, disease prevention, and hatchery math. The program becomes a dynamic learning experience, where students calculate survival rates, stocking rates, and the nutritional needs of young salmon. A noteworthy aspect of the program is the commitment of educators to uphold ideal tank conditions, ensuring the eventual release of robust and contented fish.

The commendable wildlife management work of the DNR, particularly in aiding salmon, plays a crucial role in enhancing the overall health and resilience of the Great Lakes thriving trout and salmon fisheries.  Managing these fisheries involves a delicate balance between providing diverse fishing opportunities and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem. Essential to this delicate equilibrium are frequent stocking initiatives and regulatory adjustments, which stand as the primary fisheries management actions. These proactive measures are instrumental in maintaining a harmonious balance, safeguarding the vitality of the Great Lakes’ aquatic environment and sustaining the robust sport fishery that serves as a cornerstone of the region’s economic and recreational appeal.

“Our DNR visitor centers around the state offer free field trips for classes, plus many opportunities for families to learn archery, fishing skills, hiking, birding, and more,” says Page. “For teens and adults, they can join in on our Outdoor Skills Academies to take a day or weekend-long dive into special topics like walleye fishing, deer/bear/pheasant hunting, steelhead fishing, foraging, backpacking, and more.”

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