It's more than just a fish tank

It's more than just a fish tank

Caring for reef helps third-graders learn math, science, language arts, other things

As students in Brandon Rutherford's third-grade class propagated zoanthids, which are a coral-like colony of animals also related to anemones, the questions students asked were almost nonstop.

"Why does it feel like this?"

"How long would it take for a coral to die?"

"Did I kill this one?"

"What's this brown stuff?"

The brown stuff was an indication that, in fact, a student had cut into the polyp he was trying to divide in order to grow new zoanthids in the classroom's 160-gallon coral reef tank at Garden Hills Elementary. It wouldn't take long to die, Rutherford said, as he helped students cut apart the tiny polyps that will grow independently after students mounted them on small cement plugs with super glue.

He showed students how to carefully separate groups of polyps using tissue shears and tiny scalpels without cutting into them.

"It's better to be gentle," Rutherford instructed the students.

The zoanthids will grow larger in the classroom's tank, and the class will probably share them around the country with others who have, or are interested in, coral reef tanks.

Rutherford said he wanted to challenge his students this year, so he put together the coral reef in his classroom.

The reef is more than a pretty fish tank. Rutherford describes it as a "mini-ecosystem" that requires students to understand math, chemistry and other science to keep it alive. Students started the year learning the chemistry and physics behind what makes the tank work, including acid-base reactions, the nitrogen cycle and other parts of marine biology.

As the year progresses, Rutherford will continue to introduce more ideas using the reef, including about how the life forms within the reef interact.

Rutherford said he's taught students to do about 90 percent of the work involved in the reef's care, and bases classroom lessons in language arts and math on the reef, as well.

"My main goal is to give students power over the decision-making process in caring for it," Rutherford said, even as he provides them resources and support as they learn about marine biology.

In some cases, a couple of students will learn about a specific topic or tool, then teach the rest of the class about it.

"We're doing a lot of things that kids were not thought to be capable of," Rutherford said, adding that students are highly interested in the reef, and he has given them a lot of responsibility.

"They have risen to the occasion," he said.

His students volunteer recess time for the reef and some stay after school as well, he said.

The students are also learning about marine biology, a topic that's not necessarily prevalent in the Midwest.

"Understanding how to care for a reef system is kind of rare," Rutherford said. "A lot of people don't understand it."

However, his students teach others at Garden Hills about it when they visit Rutherford's classroom.

Rutherford also wants his students to understand they're a part of a community in school, in Champaign and in the world as a whole. His class has a website, and the students use it to connect with others online who are involved in maintaining reefs, either as hobbyists or marine biologists. Online, they connect with people like marine divers and those who can help them with problems they encounter with their reef tank.

The students post information about the reef to their website at

"The kids have kind of found they are members of an online culture related to marine biology," he said.

Members of Rutherford's class call themselves the Awesome Squad — Rutherford believes in teaching character traits rather than behaviors — and they say they work together, don't give up on their tasks and work hard, with integrity, said third-grader Jenna Purnell.

"We do stuff that is grown up and not for babies," said third-grader Alex Mokhov.

Rutherford said the class discusses what behaviors and traits go into the idea of being awesome.

Rutherford said he believes many students, especially younger ones, see school as abstract and benefit from performing physical tasks that give them immediate feedback on how they're doing.

"(The reef) puts their performance and focus of study and represents it in a very physical way," he said, as they know they have to take care of the tank. If they don't, complex problems will develop, and they're responsible for fixing it.

"In a very positive way, I've had them take on more responsibility," Rutherford said. "Dealing with responsibility is really a skill and that kind of skill can be transferred to other things."

Rutherford said teachers struggle with student apathy, and students don't always understand the purpose of what they're learning at school.

"They learn responsibility by being responsible," he said, as it's not something that can be explained without students taking action.

Rutherford said the classroom coral reef pushes his students to perform at a higher level "because they think there's something at stake," he said.

They know the reef contains expensive life forms — thousands of dollars worth — and one mistake could kill everything in it.

However, Rutherford said, he cares so much about his students being responsible for the life within the tank that he'd let the animals die before taking over their responsibilities.

"The students are careful and focused," he said, and that concentration transfers to other areas of his curriculum.

His students lead their own literacy circles in class to discuss books they're reading, and have dissected rats in class. They read what might be considered adult-level texts on marine biology, studying chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and using math to understand the chemical reactions within the reef.

Several of Rutherford's students said they've learned how to use dangerous tools safely and how to regulate the salinity of the tank using pure and salty water.

"We learned the right way to take care of things," Mokhov said.

And while Rutherford said the coral reef is a valuable tool for his students to learn about science, responsibility and other important lessons, he's also looking for support.

He's spent more than $5,000 of his own money, and is hoping to spread awareness that the class would be grateful for donations.

To learn more about what the class needs to maintain the tank, please visit

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