Do you remember how you got into Ecology? At what point did you realise that Fish (or some other animal I guess) were truly fascinating? Were you always interested, or did you discover ecology gradually from a good teacher or your family?
Fish Thinkers Research Group has long been interested in how scientists disseminate information, and how you get people to take notice. A critical aspect of this is what attracts kids and teenagers to science and causes them to consider their natural environment. So Fish Thinkers went on an expedition and began to find out what kids think of ecology and the environment around them. We also got to reminisce a little about when we discovered ecology, through a window into some 10-year-old minds.
This project we’ve undertaken has also allowed us to investigate some great ways of passing on an interest in ecology and collaborating with schools to share our knowledge and research skills. Hopefully we can also pass on some conservation values to the kiddies of today!
Recently Fish Thinkers donated a large fish tank to a year 5/6 class at Sackville Street Public School in Ingleburn, NSW. As a class project, assisted by Lachlan, the kids and their teacher have set up their fish tank as a model of the Georges River, which passes close by the school. Lachlan took the class to the Georges River and taught them about sustainable fishing practices, water quality and about the variety of fish that live there. They caught fish for the tank, in what Keith from 5/6 O described as a ‘stealth takedown’ (ironically Keith has a pretty good grasp on conservation) and the kids now maintain their classroom aquarium, and learn about the fish and what kind of environment they like to live in. They have also been on excursions to the Georges River to learn about some of the environmental issues there.
This week I went to visit Sackville Street to find out about the benefits of collaboration between a research group like this, and a classroom. I talked to the teacher, Joao Oliveira, about how he has incorporated the aquarium into all different subjects to create a really interactive learning experience for the kids. I also had a chat with some of the kids in 5/6 O, and asked them whether they like the aquarium, what they’ve learnt from the project, and what they think of ecology studies in general. 10 and 11 year old kids don’t fail to provide some entertaining answers!
Before this year, most of the kids in 5/6 O had a vague interest in science, but minimal exposure to the practical applications of ecology and scientific skills. Some kids had been fishing or had ‘a brother obsessed with fishing’…. I know what that’s like! Chloe liked learning about natural disasters, Joel was into science fiction, and quite a few kids mentioned that they wanted to do science in high school, but so far aquatic environments were not entirely on their radar. Joel explained this was because he was more into ‘potions and stuff’, so that cleared that up.
How is the fish tank used in the classroom?
One of the interesting aspects of having the fish tank in a classroom is the way it can be used to teach a range of subjects in a practical way. All the kids talked about monitoring biological parameters, such as temperature and pH, and learning to graph this data to show any changes that might be occurring. Jessica explained that from this they could see how ‘things change over time’ and this could teach them a lot about how the fish like to live. Natalie, Keith and John also told me that they recently wrote an opinion piece about whether jet skis should be allowed in the Georges River. Their understanding of the fish in their tank allowed them to come up with ideas about the impacts a jet ski might have on the fish still living in the river. As Keith explained, “jet skis make pollution and the decibels are really high”, neither of which are good for the fish. Amarli likes having the fish tank because she usually doesn’t enjoy maths but when they are graphing data from the tank, or figuring out the volume, she enjoys it more and realises why mathematics is important. Both Natalie and Johannah said they liked having a fish tank modelled on the natural environment because it helps the class do real research.
“It’s the constant exposure to environmental science that makes their learning meaningful. One off experiences make science learning seem abstract and irrelevant where as this shows how science ties in to all learning areas” Joao Oliveira, classroom teacher 5/6 O.
What have they learned so far?
Asking kids ‘what have you learned?’ often seems to be a difficult question. While lots of the kids had to think for a while about what they were learning from the fish tank project, they had already revealed so much new knowledge just chatting to me. When describing the tank, the kids often used the proper name for the fish, ‘Australian Smelt’, which they know can grow up to 10cm long, and love to eat bloodworms. Well, we figured out that they grow up to 10cm, after a slight mistake when Jessica said they would grow up to 100 cm long and we decided they might need a bigger fish tank!
The previous day the class had introduced some tadpoles to their tank, and lots of the kids described how they had gradually mixed the new water with the tank water so the fish weren’t moving between water temperatures too quickly. Amarli, Emily and Jessica explained the changes they had seen in the fish, who used to school constantly but now often swim on their own, and the shrimp, who increasingly come up from their hiding places. Without prompting they hypothesised about why these behavioural changes might be occurring, with guesses such as ‘’they are getting more comfortable in their new environment’’.
Why is learning this information important?
After chatting about the fish tank and the benefits of this project, I asked the kids why they thought it was important to know any of this information. Patrick and Cristian said it’s important to know about the natural environment around you and Joel, Chloe and Johannah said that without knowing how to keep plants healthy we might all die, which made me think I should learn more about how to look after plants! Emily and Amarli thought that a lot of the information they had learnt was helpful for all different subjects and that the fish tank made learning interesting.
What I got from talking to the class about their fish tank and the project so far, was that a practical, relevant, and local project like this can really grab their attention, and seems to help open up new ways of thinking about their natural environment. I talked to the principal of Sackville Street, Michael Newcombe about the educational benefits of such a project and he was very enthusiastic about ‘authentic learning’ and the ways the fish tank project is embodying this concept.
‘’When it’s authentic I think students remember their learning, and it actually sticks a lot more…[you can see] the skills that are being developed, in the investigation, in research, and the analysing and enquiry about their learning’’.
What Mr. Newcombe has found is that he is having ‘’real quality education conversations with the kids…what they’re telling me is, they feel a purpose to their learning’’.
My favourite comment from the kids was the last one of the day, when John explained why the fish tank was important to him and pretty much summed up what you might hope a project such as this could teach us all, ‘’then we can help the environment, and know if there are bad things happening’’. These kids know what’s up!
5/6 O is actually working on an article about their fish tank at the moment and is going to provide their finished product to Fish Thinkers when it’s done! I told them we’d put it through the peer review process and if it’s up to scratch we might publish it.
On kids finding a passion:
‘’it’s having some sort of hook that will bring kids in…it’s a constant reminder of their learning’’.
‘’teachers make the difference… if you have a teacher who’s passionate, about the skills they want to impart to their students, and they’re willing to do it in a way that’s engaging and motivating, that’s how you switch kids on’’ (Mr. Newcombe, Principal Sackville Street Primary School)