Classroom program seeks to raise awareness of sturgeon

Lake Orion, Mich. — Jon Gray has a student in his class at Waldon Middle School in Lake Orion who hasn’t answered a question, taken a test, or turned in a homework assignment all year. But when it comes to educating its classmates, this student rises to the top of the class – well, to the  top of the aquarium. The student is a juvenile lake sturgeon. It lives in a 50-gallon aquarium at the back of the class and is a key tool in Gray’s science lessons on conservation and natural resources.

The 6- to 7-inch fish is on loan from the Michigan DNR. It will stay in the classroom until the end of the school year as part of a pilot program called Sturgeon in the Classroom. Gray’s class is one of eight across the state participating in the program.

“This is a pilot program we started (this school year) just to see if it’s even feasible to continue,” said Kevin Frailey, the DNR’s education services manager who facilitates the program. “We’ve had requests for it for years and Fisheries Division chief Jim Dexter said we should give it a try. We were the obvious choice (to run the program) since we run the Salmon in the Classroom program.

Salmon in the Classroom allows schools to receive and raise salmon eggs. Students watch  them hatch, raise the tiny fry for a school year, then release them as 2- to 3-inch smolts into the Great Lakes in the spring.

“The sturgeon program could never be the size of the Salmon in the Classroom program, which has over 200 schools participating,” Frailey said. “The sturgeon is a threatened species in Michigan and there just aren’t as many available.”

The limited availability didn’t deter Gray from jumping into the program.

“The students love it and we use it as a learning tool,” Gray said. “I think the key to the program is to make them aware of issues (like threatened species) and expose them to the message of conservation.”

His eighth-grade science  students seem to enjoy the added company and the lessons learned.

“I like having (the fish) in the class and watching it grow,” said student Trake Gezycki. “We’ve learned where they live, what kind of habitat they like, and how big they get. We’ve learned all about them.”

According to the Sturgeon for Tomorrow website, sturgeon have been around since the Upper Cretaceous period about 136 million years ago. To put that into perspective, sturgeon were on the Earth when dinosaurs were at the height of their existence. The fish are native to the Great Lakes system and are the largest freshwater fish in the system.

Sturgeon can grow to 6 feet and weigh upwards of 200 pounds. The average life span of a sturgeon is about 55 years for a male and 80 to 150 years for a female. Females usually don’t reach sexual maturity until they are in excess of 20 years old.

Gray said that along with the biology lessons the students receive, they also study environmental issues and cultural issues.

“The key to the program is to raise awareness of sturgeon,” Frailey said. “They are one of the coolest fish we have in Michigan. We hope that if we raise awareness of them people will be more likely to protect them.”

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