It’s hard to find a better example of project-based learning than how students at Jack Harvey Elementary spent their school year — raising and releasing salmon. Through the Michigan DNR’s Salmon in the Classroom program, students raised and cared for salmon in their classroom, from fall until spring, from egg to release into the Clinton River.

In addition to learning about the life-cycle and biology of salmon, students explored the habitat of the Clinton River and its relationship tp the health of the Great Lakes. They conducted a macroinvertebrates study, researched native plants, did water quality testing and drew connections among the many variables that impact lake and river ecology. Read their story, below.

Teacher Team/Teacher Affiliate:  Bethany Swartz

Community issue or need addressed:  Fisheries health and river monitoring.

Bethany Swartz’s 4th grade class project shows the progression and changing nature of youth-led civic engagement projects. Their initial idea  for a project-based learning activity was to complete a community garden space, but as the students started planning, developing sketches, calling experts and recruiting parent volunteers in the research step of the Earth Force process, the class ran into problems with a lack of native plant experts and limited supplies and funds to complete the project.

Ms. Swartz resubmitted a SEMIS Coalition community partnership grant to accommodate the changing circumstances, and turned to water quality monitoring as an alternative project focus. The students regrouped and developed the idea of working with the salmon habitat project following a macroinvertebrate sort at the Clinton River that peaked their interest in river ecology. The “Salmon in the Classroom” program was introduced as a natural extension of the “bug sort” at the river and the interest in native habitats.

Through meetings with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Clinton River Watershed Council experts, the students began to raise the salmon in fish tanks, learned about the fish life cycle and fisheries health, and connected the study of macroinvertebrates with the river health and the reintroduction of the mature Salmon at the end of the program. The release was covered by major newspapers like the Detroit Free Press, and coincided with a second macroinvertebrate sampling to bring the project full circle. Ms. Swartz also started a blog to help celebrate the successes of this student focused achievement.

Outcomes for Students’ Learning:

Students presented their project at the SEMIS Community Forum, including a poster presentation.  Students also released their mature salmon in a culminating field trip at the Clinton River, paired with macroinvertebrate sampling.  Through the experience of researching native habitats and qualitative water sampling, as well as the use of the Earth Force process to improve student voice, youth were able to lead their project development and share those successes with the community.

Outcomes for Educator Learning:

Bethany’s trajectory as a SEMIS teacher started with her participation in two years of professional development, and her involvement with the ESLP/NOAA grant.  Bethany received trainings and partnership grants revolving around Earth Force and NOAA resources, and was supported by SEMIS through scaffolded professional development experiences including summer institutes, full day PD sessions, curriculum coaching, networking and conference opportunities.  Professional development opportunities included the annual SEMIS summer institute as well as a trip to the Lake Huron Summer institute, organized by the Northeast Michigan Stewardship hub, in which she held a live sturgeon and learned about repopulating endangered fish. Bethany also received support from her community partner, the Clinton River Watershed Council.

For her efforts, Bethany Swartz will be recognized by the Network of Michigan Educators and the Michigan Department of Education in December as a finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.The Michigan Science Teachers Association will also honor her at an awards ceremony in February.

Powerful Place Based Educator Characteristics:

  • Finding and inviting experts and community members into your classroom
  • Forming community partnerships
  • Using an inquiry approach
  • Providing opportunities for students to see the “results” their work in the school and community 
  • Understanding and teaching science concepts
  • Helping students to take action to protect, preserve, re‐vitalize a place  
  • Putting students in the position of “teacher” (e.g., during Community Forum, PBE conference, Summer Institute, presentations to their community)
  • Helping students to see themselves as part of a watershed and the Great Lakes community

Methods for data collection:

  • Macroinvertebrate and chemical sampling
  • Community inventory (walkabout, photo survey of issues and assets)

Assessment measures:

  • Final presentation at SEMIS community forum
  • Posterboard and website showing results of project:

Interdisciplinary tie-ins:

  • Social studies:  Media research on topics of interest (Clinton River health, native gardening)

S.IP.04.11,12/S.IP.05.11 Make purposeful observations of the

natural world. Generate questions based on observations.

S.IP.04.14/S.IP.05.13 Use tools that aid observation and data


S.IA.04.12 /S.IA.05.12 Share ideas and evaluate data and claims

about science through purposeful conversation in collaborative


S.IA.04.13/S.IA.05.13 Communicate and present findings of

observations and investigations using evidence.

S.RS.04.18/S.RS. 05.17 Describe the effect humans and other

organisms have on the balance of the natural world.


4 – H3.0.8 Describe past and current threats to Michigan’s natural

resources; describe how Michigan worked in the past and

continues to work today to protect its natural resources. (G, C, E)

4 – G5.0.1 Assess the positive and negative effects of human

activities on the physical environment of the United States.

4 – P4.2.1/5- P4.2.1 Develop and implement an action plan and

know how, when, and where to address or inform others about a

public issue.


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings,

and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of

reasoning and the organization, development, and style are

appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.


5-ESS3-1 Obtain and combine information about ways individual

communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources

and environment.