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Enhancing Aquaculture Project Innovatively Blends Learning Experiences in Alaska

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The Enhancing Aquaculture project combines classroom and experiential learning. Students will learn from University of Alaska fisheries technology faculty in classrooms and outdoor coastal settings as well as from industry professionals during internships at salmon hatcheries in Southeast Alaska.

In 2019-2020 the new fish pathology and mariculture courses developed with the support of an Advanced Technological Education (ATE)  grant  will be piloted online before they are taught in-person as part of the 13-credit Salmon Culture Semester. Marketing and recruiting efforts are underway for the program that will be offered for the first time in fall 2020 at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in Sitka. Students who complete the semester will receive an industry-recognized occupational endorsement.

“The industry is 100% behind it. They are excited about it because it is going to bring them employees and trained technicians,” explained Joel Markis, principal investigator of Enhancing Aquaculture: Education for Underserved Alaskan Communities to Promote Workforce Development in Fisheries Industries (1764383).

Technicians employed at salmon hatcheries in Alaska care for vulnerable salmon eggs and juvenile fish before releasing them into the wild.

Technicians employed at salmon hatcheries in Alaska care for vulnerable salmon eggs and juvenile fish before releasing them into the wild.

Hands-on lessons during the Salmon Culture Semester will include measuring and weighing salmon smolt to calculate growth rates and feeding densities.

Hands-on lessons during the Salmon Culture Semester will include measuring and weighing salmon smolt to calculate growth rates and feeding densities.

The project has already placed ads in newspapers and conducted targeted marketing in small communities that are predominantly Alaska Native, as well as other recruitment efforts on the university’s website and in strategic places in the lower 48 states. In addition to recruiting people who want to begin technical careers immediately, faculty hope to recruit University of Alaska students and students enrolled at other colleges.    

“How amazing would it be?” Conversations Lead to ATE Grant

Markis says the project falls “ideally in line” with other recent efforts by the fishery technology faculty to offer experiential learning opportunities that complement distance-delivered courses, which are frequently used to serve Alaska’s widely dispersed population.

A few years ago the fisheries technology faculty decided “it would be a shame to have a student get a fisheries degree without actually touching and squeezing a fish. So we have [in-person] lab requirements for our students and these are by far the best and most impactful learning experiences students have. When they come here to Sitka they get to go out with us and other researchers and fishery managers and experience these fisheries firsthand while learning the skills of the trade.”

Markis says the success of this approach led to discussions about “how amazing would it be to take those experiences and, instead of teaching skills online, teach them in a face-to-face format where students could learn about aquaculture and how a salmon hatchery works throughout the entire semester. Instead of learning about how to spawn salmon through videos, readings, and assignments, wouldn’t it be better to teach students and demonstrate these skills in a natural setting [and] then have students help to spawn those fish?”

Internships in Coastal Alaska Just One Aspect of Salmon Culture Semester

In 2018 Markis received an ATE grant from the National Science Foundation to test these ideas. Now that the new fish pathology and mariculture courses have been approved and an occupational endorsement created, Markis and his colleagues are preparing to offer the intense semester-long program for the first time in fall 2020. While in Sitka the students will stay in dorms previously owned by a private college and experience coastal Alaska living.

The Salmon Culture semester, as it is called, will begin with four weeks of in-person, classroom and field instruction in fisheries and aquaculture. Students will also take courses in small vessel operations, cold water survival, and outboard motor maintenance from UAS marine technology faculty.

These formal courses will be followed by multi-week internships at remote salmon hatcheries across Southeast Alaska. The students will travel by float plane or small boat to the hatcheries and work as part of crews that rear wild salmon, taking care of eggs and juvenile fish.

Alaska salmon fisheries are considered among the best in the world because they are sustainably managed and harvested. Part of this involves salmon enhancement where technicians and hatchery managers protect vulnerable salmon eggs and juvenile fish before releasing them into the wild. Once the salmon are four to five inches long, the hatcheries release the fish into the Pacific Ocean where they grow into adult salmon, ultimately returning to Alaska and the natal streams from where they originated.

After the students complete their 150-hour internships they will return to Sitka for a few more weeks of in-person classes culminating in a job fair where they will meet with prospective employers.

The job fair is the last of the novel experiences planned for the Salmon Culture Semester, and Markis says, “We are really excited to see how that piece works out and watch students transition into the workforce.”    

Categories:
  • agriculture
  • environment
  • science
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