Richland girl develops fish-tagging game

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 5, 2014 

As an aspiring fish surgeon, 12-year-old Olivia Hallquist loves learning about anything with gills and fins, she said.

The Carmichael Middle School sixth-grader has twice attended the Benton Conservation District's annual Salmon Summit in Kennewick's Columbia Park. She's always enjoyed herself, but the learning station on fish tagging left her wanting more.

"They talked about (tagging) and showed us the tags, but it wasn't very hands-on," Olivia said. "And I really like hands-on stuff."

Olivia is returning to Salmon Summit this year in the role of a teacher. An interactive fish-tagging game she developed will be used to help about 2,000 Mid-Columbia fourth- and fifth-graders understand how researchers track fish and learn about them.

"I'm so thrilled we've helped to spark an interest," said Rachel Little, a fish biologist with the conservation district.

Salmon Summit, now in its 14th year, has grown to advocate for all forms of conservation, but salmon and its role in the Columbia River are a big focus, Little said. Students from Benton and Yakima counties will release young fish into the river and learn about fish biology and river systems during the two-day event starting Tuesday.

Olivia has spent a large part of her life learning about fish, from observing the ones she keeps in a freshwater tank at home to the aquarium camps she's attended in Seattle.

During a fisheries workshop at a science conference for girls at Washington State University Tri-Cities in March, Olivia and other students played a game that used radio telemetry to find a hidden fish tag. That led her to come up with her game idea -- put metal inside some model fish, disperse them into a larger group of similar models and use magnets to find the "tagged" fish.

"We need to show (students) how the tagging actually works," Olivia said.

Olivia decided to make the game part of her Silver Award project for Girl Scouts, which must be something of ongoing benefit to the community. With help from her mother, Carrie Hallquist, as well as Pacific Northwest National Laboratory biologists Alison Colotelo and Megan Nims, she set to work.

Designing and building the game was a trial-and-error process, Olivia and her mom said. Placing metal washers in the fish didn't yield enough magnetism to be picked up by wand magnets, so they bought rare earth magnets to use instead.

Getting the magnets inside the 4-inch-long hard plastic fish also proved a challenge -- Carrie Hallquist cut her hand in one early attempt before they developed a more precise and secure method.

"It dulls blades really fast when you cut through plastic fish," she said.

The game hasn't gone through a full test, but the adults who helped inspire the project are impressed.

"This is what I hope for -- inspiring youth," Colotelo said. "This is why I do these sort of workshops."

Olivia approached Little about including the game in Salmon Summit and Little agreed. While student volunteers have always helped at the event, this will be the first time a student-designed activity will be part of the offerings.

And designing the game means Olivia gets to attend Salmon Summit yet again, but as a volunteer rather than a student.

"I think they're going to like it," Olivia said of her game.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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