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Tank Tips: A Freshwater Aquarium in the Classroom

three girls

Originally appears in the Spring 2006 issue

Some of my favorite high school memories are of sitting in science class watching fish in the many aquariums that lined the room. The counters bordering the classroom held about 20 aquarium tanks of different sizes, representing various freshwater habitats from all over the world. These aquatic communities included pink kissing gouramis, Mexican blind cave fish, a community tank of tetras, a three-foot-long African lungfish (who was hand fed red worms once a day), and platties and swordtails who gave birth to endless schools of tiny fry. We watched the way the fish communities interacted and changed as new fish were added or babies were born. We helped change the water, maintain filters, feed the fish, and design the “landscape” inside the tanks. The science classroom was always an interesting place to be, and the lessons I learned went far beyond science curriculum. I gained a very practical understanding of the effects of water quality and chemistry, developed a sense of ownership and responsibility towards the care of our classroom, and gained skills that have enabled me to enjoy a lifelong hobby of keeping tropical freshwater fish.

Today, I still keep tropical fish, both at home and at school, and enjoy sharing a classroom aquarium with my students. Teachers who are interested in adding a freshwater aquarium to their classroom will find that it offers both aesthetic appeal and the opportunity to integrate learning across many disciplines. Students may study chemistry as they learn how to test water quality, biology as they learn about the anatomy of a fish, math as they calculate how many fish can live in tanks of different sizes, and geography as they map the places in the world where their tropical fish came from. In addition to benefiting academically, students have the opportunity to learn and practice responsible behavior by helping to care for the fish and maintain the aquarium. Further, observations of the interactions of the fish provide excellent opportunities to discuss social relationships and classroom dynamics.

The following tips are intended to help teachers select aquarium equipment and freshwater tropical fish that are suitable for the classroom, and to link the classroom aquarium to various subject areas of the curriculum.

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Rebecca Holcombe is an environmental educator and the Director of Community Programs for Common Ground High School and the New Haven Ecology Project in New Haven, Connecticut.