A few years ago, I conducted a research experiment with two of my 7th grade science classes at Heritage Academy, Mesa. This experiment was part of an online graduate level course called Research in Science given through the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.  After years of teaching science, I noticed how excited students are when they get to work hands-on with live animals. I was curious to know if students actually learn more effectively using live animals. I designed an experiment where I could gather data on students using live animals compared to working with photos from textbooks or digital materials. The results were shocking.

With a selected class, I created a lab with live animals. Then I chose a separate 7th grade class that would perform the same lab, but instead of interacting with live animals, they only had photos of the animals. Both classes were required to fill out a lab report about what they learned and take a quiz at the end of the week. Neither class was aware of the conditions in the other class. I put six stations around the room and divided the students into small groups. They rotated through each station and completed the lab report as a group. The six featured animals were millipedes, lizards, gopher snake, sonoran desert toad, tarantula, and scorpion. The students in the selected class could hold and interact with the nonvenomous animals. While students worked on the lab in each class, I walked around with a clipboard and recorded what they were talking about in each group. I also recorded any questions that the students asked me.

The two classes stood in sharp contrast to each other. The class with live animals was loud with noise and excitement. The students were visibly happy and enthusiastic to do the lab. All the groups were talking about the animals. On the other hand, the class without animals was very quiet with no excitement. As I circulated among the groups, they were talking about topics that did not relate to science, things like their favorite singer and what they planned to do on the weekend.

Through the course of the experiment, something happened that I was not expecting. The class with animals asked questions throughout the entire lab. I received so many questions I struggled to write them all down. Here are a few of the questions they asked: “Why does the lizard stick to my fingers?”, “Why does the millipede nibble my fingers?” and “Why are the snake’s eyes blue?” The questions seemed to drive the direction of the lab in that class. The students used the information they gained to complete the lab report, and subsequently that class scored higher on the lab and the quiz. In contrast, the class without animals only had one student ask a question throughout the entire lab.

Getting students to ask questions is such an important part of the scientific method. It was clear that using live animals provides a richer learning experience for students and that experience helps them better retain the knowledge they gain. It is extremely rewarding as a teacher to see students enthusiastic to come to school and learn each day. I love teaching science at Heritage Academy where I can see students faces light up as they safely hold and interact with lizards, snakes or bugs.

Blot post written by Cale Morris, a science teacher at Heritage Academy Mesa

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