Third graders at Kalmiopsis Elementary School learned all about the life cycle of salmon and steelhead first-hand during a field trip last week to the Elk River Fish Hatchery, just north of Port Orford.

"It gives us lots of opportunities to teach different avenues of science," third-grade teacher Ken Olsen said. "It's just a component of a bigger piece. This is the central thing we do in third grade."

While at the hatchery, students observed big pens in which the fish are kept, went to the fish ladders and saw them swim into the hatchery from the river, watched an employee go into the water with a net and scoop up salmon and learned the differences between male and female fish and how to distinguish between them.

They also were given an overview of what fish need: cool water, clean gravel and shade; visited a hatch house with fertilized eggs and learned about the fertilization process and fed fish.

Riparian zones, pollution, fish development and watersheds were touched upon as well.

"It takes the kids out of the classroom to learn," Olsen said. "Any time you can get kids out of the classroom to learn you're ahead of the game.

"Using salmon and steelhead gives a platform to take science out of the classroom very easily. It applies to kids' lives. That industry touches a lot of people in our community."

Third-grader Grace Norman gave a full report on the trip.

"When fish eat, they just swim around with their mouths open and hope they get some of the food we threw them," Norman said. "When we threw a whole bunch, they swarmed in the same direction, but when they were just waiting, they would all face the same direction and wait."

Her favorite part was the employee netting the fish and asking students whether the fish was female or male.

"He'd hold fish up out of the net and yell 'Guess,'" Norman said. "And one time, we saw a female squirt out eggs. It was kinda gross, but kind of cool. It was a lot of fun, and I had a really good time there."

Third-grader Dylan Hodge enjoyed the experience, too.

"I learned about what the salmon look like, and when they went through the phases of life and what the differences of male and female were and what salmon heads look like," Hodge said.

His favorite part was "getting to watch the person in the pool catch the fish with the net," he said.

"It went pretty well, and I really liked it, and that was probably the funnest field trip I've ever been on."

Olsen said the field trip went well.

"The kids had a great time," he said. "Who doesn't like field trips?"

But it wouldn't have been possible without its sponsor, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

"We know it's a successful thing that we do because the volunteer support kids get is huge," Olsen said. "All the groups (such as ODFW and the South Coast Watershed Council) donate time and resources and energy to kids to understand the fish around here.

"Those people make all of this stuff possible for us."

And the unit about the salmon life cycle doesn't end here - in the spring, third graders will raise steelhead, release them into the Chetco River, and go fishing.

"We just use it as an avenue to expand children's knowledge of the area through a unique species no one else has," Olsen said.