Naperville North’s Ocean In The Classroom

As Common Core standards continue to raise the bar for education, the necessity for hands-on learning experiences becomes greater and greater. New science standards are being implemented next year, and District 203 will have a unique tool for students with Naperville North’s Ocean in the Classroom.

The ocean is actually a large aquarium, with more than 200 gallons of salt water and different types of fish and corals. Its caretaker is Naperville North science teacher Maggie Pellegrini, an experienced aquarium owner who jumped at the chance to have one in her classroom. North received the aquarium as a donation, which included the tank, some equipment and some fish. Mrs. Pellegrini was able to flesh out the environment with more donations of fish and corals to create a coral reef like you would find in Australia or the Caribbean. The result is a colorful world with more than 30 types of coral and six kinds of fish.

Mrs. Pellegrini soon found that the aquarium brought a new, better aspect to the biology curriculum. “We do a whole kingdoms unit, we talk about animals, the different phyla of animals, and in this tank alone there’s like 8 different phyla,” she said. Before, students would look at organisms that had been preserved in bottles, which was “not very exciting.” Now students can use the tank to pick out organisms of different phyla and then research them, or they are assigned a phyla and must find it in the tank, then describe it and talk about it with others. Now instead of looking at a bottle on a desk, students can “have a live interaction” with the subject they’re studying.

Her students say their favorite part of the day is coming in to class and looking at the aquarium. Seeing the corals in their ocean habitat helps the kids understand that coral are living creatures, not decorations from a gift shop. A group of three clownfish swim around a large anemone in one corner of the tank. A fourth clownfish flits around another part of the tank, but when he tries to join the group by the anemone, “the mother clownfish will not allow it…he’s banished from the herd.”

Every three weeks the clownfish lay a new set of eggs. “My students love to go back, and they check on the eggs, to see are they hatched yet,” says Mrs. Pellegrini. And what happens when they do hatch? “The corals eat them.” The students are getting a lesson about the food chain without even realizing it!
Of course, maintaining a 200 gallon aquarium isn’t free, and while the department was on board with having an ocean in the classroom, it became clear that the funds to keep it going simply weren’t in the budget. At the same time, Mrs. Pellegrini was realizing that the aquarium could be a dynamic addition to the curriculum for all the district’s students, not just the ones lucky enough to be in her class. So she turned to NEF’s grant program for help.

The grant from NEF provided funds to keep the aquarium going, buying salt and the many different media to keep the chemicals in the tank, like calcium and magnesium, at their proper levels. A new protein skimmer keeps everything clean (“the tank wouldn’t survive without it,” says Mrs. Pellegrini) along with new pumps to circulate the water and extra filters to purify tap water to put in the aquarium. The grant also purchased a webcam, and soon there will be a link, hopefully on the district web page, so all students in the district can interact with this coral reef in their own biology classrooms. Even our youngest students can be involved, as the grant gave Mrs. Pellegrini the resources to take a 20 gallon tank with an assortment of fish and coral from the main aquarium to the Ann Reid Early Childhood Center for two weeks while they did a unit on the ocean.

This sort of live interaction will prove to be very important as District 203 continues to implement the Common Core Curriculum. Mrs. Pellegrini says that the Next Generation Science Standards are starting next year. These new, more rigorous standards “are very hands-on, and using modeling, not just regurgitating information — this would be great for it.”

For more information about Ocean in the Classroom, contact:
Margaret Pellegrini, Environmental Club Advisor, Naperville North High School
Through its Annual Grant Awards, NEF helps fund inspirational enrichment
programs created by District 203 teachers, parents and students. Each year,
30-50 grants are awarded in the categories of Literacy, Math & Science, Fine Arts,
Health & Physical Development, General and Cultural Studies.

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