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CHAMPAIGN — Kids around here know more about husking corn than about the colors of a coral reef. And their understanding of clown fish comes straight from "Finding Nemo."

That's why one teacher at Stratton Elementary School has decided to bring the ocean straight to the classroom.

Brandon Rutherford, a third-grade gifted teacher, has been incorporating marine life exploration into his classroom environment for the past three years, and calls his students' work with the aquatic tanks about "much more than just cool-looking fish."

After an investment of over $60,000 — half of which came from Rutherford's own pocket — on tanks, equipment and livestock, Stratton is now home to three large coral reef tanks, checking in at 300, 120 and 90 gallons.

His goals started small, but he now spends between 15 and 20 hours a week of personal time working with students and expanding the project to what he hopes will become a long-term experiment in science education reform.

It "keeps growing, but only in response to the kids enthusiasm with it," Rutherford said. "There are so many avenues of education, development and social growth that are stemming from the marine project and the kids keep surprising me with their interest. That's what helps me get through the day, just knowing the kids are happy with it."

So, what does having a couple of salt-water fish tanks in the classroom do for elementary students? Apparently, a whole lot.

Better behavior

A few years into Rutherford's teaching career, he ran into a problem: his classroom was routinely being damaged by a couple of students with behavioral issues. He did some research on how to mediate the problem and eventually decided to buy a fish tank.

"The impact was profound and immediate," he said. "The kids were interested. The students who had problems sharing, got better at sharing time with the fish. The kids who were shy started working better with other students to take care of the fish. It became a more successful part of the classroom and this whole idea was born from those interactions."

Now, with three large tanks, Rutherford has been able to spread the wealth — sharing the 90-gallon tank with his next-door neighbors, Monty Rose's third-grade class.

In Rose's room, five students have specific jobs taking care of the tank and the fish, tasks that have strongly improved the way certain students interact, Rose says.

"There are some kids that really thrive on the opportunity to take responsibility over the creatures and it's clear they have really started looking forward to coming to school each day," he said. "It also gives them a sense of pride that they have a job and that really goes a long way when it comes to behavior."

Process learning

Along with the conceptual shift Common Core is bringing to the classroom, a new set of national guidelines for science instruction is being implemented in school districts across the country. It's called the Next Generation Science Standards.

Common Core and Next Generation both focus on process learning — instead of studying specific content, students will be taught more about the process of learning in general and the variety of different skills that go along with it.

A few examples: taking measurements, testing designs, collecting data and conducting experiments. All are process skills that can be applied to many subjects. Research shows that the earlier a child learns and masters these types of skills, the faster they can learn specific content, Rutherford said.

In his classroom, the coral reef is the catalyst for this teaching shift. And it gives kids just the hands-on experience they need to understand big concepts, like microorganisms.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Oh these really tiny things you can't even see are really important to the life cycle.' But if you have the kids grow them themselves, look at them under microscopes and see them in a real life ecosystem like the fish tank, it imparts knowledge on them in a really secure way," Rutherford said.

Take it from Savanna Olson, a fifth-grader who works as a project manager for the coral reef venture of Stratton's microsociety. Daily, she collects data and tests the water in the tank, making sure the amount of salt is safe for the fish and corals.

"I sprinkle a little bit of water on the top of the refractometer and then I close the lid and look through the eye piece. You have to make sure it's pointed towards the light," the fifth-grader said. "It's not as active as a hydrometer, but it works pretty well. If the salinity gets too low or too high, it will negatively impact the life in the tank."

Animal husbandry

When third-grader Lula Randolph was 4, she distinctly remembers being enthralled by fish.

"I visited an aquarium with my family back then and there were all sorts of interesting aquatic animals and I was like, 'Wow, these are so cool,'" she said. "When I found out my teacher had a coral reef in class, I was so excited. My favorite part is finding out more and more about what these creatures are and observing the tanks."

Lula is one of several students who help feed and care for the fish and anemones each day. She uses a tool called a Julian's Thing to suck up liquid food and feed the corals. It's animal husbandry skills like these that have prompted teachers to have pets in the classroom for decades.

"Not being around nature and animals can have a negative social impact on people," Rutherford said. "Helping the kids connect to nature and giving them responsibility of caring for things helps them fill that need."

Third-grader Elyes Boubekri says he gets really excited when new creatures are added to the tank, like the maroon clown fish.

"They are my absolute favorite," he said. "I also really like playing with the polyps, which are little tiny animals that live inside the coral and also the yellow tang, which looks like the bubbles fish from 'Nemo.'"

Outside support

In order to sustain the ongoing aquatic project, Rutherford has had to take a different approach to funding and curriculum development. He writes his own material and networks with people in the community and beyond to gain financial and informational support.

For example, when Rutherford started the project at Stratton, the school's original electrical wiring could not handle the amount of electricity needed for the tanks. Two local businesses, Tepper Electric and Remco Electric, donated about $6,000 worth of time and services to change the school's wiring. Quality Marine donated lights, filters and salt. Coral Frenzy donates food. The list goes on and on, Rutherford said.

Rutherford has also developed mutually beneficial partnerships with a couple of scientists. The researchers help teach the kids new information and the kids help the researchers collect data and do experiments.

Eric Henry, a research scientist from Reed Mariculture, recently started working with Rutherford's third-graders teaching them, via Skype, about rotifers, a type of plankton. The kids started harvesting rotifers in class and have been collaborating with Reed to help design instructional manuals for coral reef hobbyists. The class was even invited to a national aquarium convention in Chicago to share their research at the company's booth.

Fourth-grader Rohan Pluta, who works closely with the rotifers, has even deemed himself a mini expert on the topic.

"After harvesting the rotifers, which is my favorite part, I look at them under the microscope, just to see them wiggling around. Then I put them in a jar and dump them into the aquarium," he said. "All the other creatures in the tank eat the rotifers. They're a really important part of life in there."