Aqua Havens project puts Columbia pupils on a scientific path

Caring for marine life leads youths to research

October 16, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the lobby of Columbia's Wilde Lake Middle School, guests are greeted with a colorful fish tank. Blue tangs, small rays and even a little shark are lovely to see, but the tank is not just for display. It is one of 20 aquariums in the building that have schoolchildren checking water pH and algae growth - part of Aqua Havens for Education.

"Aqua students" learn to care for marine life and habitats, eventually conducting research that puts them in touch with professional scientists.

Aqua Havens' pupil director is Amber Madore, 13, an eighth-grader. "I go around and I make sure the kids are doing everything right. It's a lot of hard work, too," she said, but she finds the fish "fascinating." Amber recalled observing the food chain in action when a hungry eel bit off a ray's tail.

The schoolwide effort is the brainchild of academic enrichment teacher Bob Keddell. He contacted Artificial Reefs Inc., a reef engineering firm, about working with the school. Company President Scott Bartkowsi helped outline the program, Keddell said.

"We made sure there was a good avenue for the kids to get involved. Scott provided the original resources," which were augmented by grants, Keddell said. The largest of these was a $9,000 grant from the Toshiba Foundation. Through grants, donations from corporate partners and budgeting by schoolchildren, Aqua Havens has run at no cost to the school.

Another sponsor is Baltimore's National Aquarium, whose staff helped train Wilde Lake science teachers before they implemented Aqua Havens with pupils. In addition to providing training, the aquarium donated tanks. It also gives pupils behind-the-scenes" tours and will offer scholarships for 10 Wilde Lake pupils to do summer research.

Guided by their teachers and outside professionals, children began building aquatic ecosystems last year. Now they maintain the tanks, design and conduct research projects and publish the results on self-made Web pages.

Reaching out to noneducators is Keddell's mission. He is director of Educators for Connecting Research to the K-16 Classroom. The Columbia-based group matches educational programs with professionals such as scientific researchers as a means of improving schools.

"You have to learn quite a bit of discipline to maintain a tank properly. That discipline, in our thinking, is really trying to get at the kids' socio-emotional learning. There's a lot of people out there who want to help the schools," said Keddell, whose group enables those people to create age-appropriate, educational activities.

Rebecca Jordan is a research fellow at Princeton University who works with cichlids, a type of fish that Wilde Lake Middle children are studying. When Keddell asked her to be the program's science mentor, she began responding to schoolchildren's e-mails about their experiments.

"They're actually more insightful than I would have given credit for middle school students," Jordan said, adding that she enjoys reading e-mails from the kids. "It just lightens your day."

Keddell said, "It's a tremendous confidence boost for kids to work with someone from outside the building. They become experts enough that they actually step in and teach."

Amber and other pupils in the program have been invited to teach science lessons for sixth- and seventh-graders.

Along with science teacher Brandon Shifflett and social studies teacher Frank Wolfe, Keddell runs Habits of Mind Exchange (HOME), an after-school academic and enrichment program. Children can participate in three areas: Aqua Havens, a student Web page design team and a partnership with mountain climber Chris Warner called Shared Summits. All three have youths learning real-life skills with outside professionals.

Though it began after school, Aqua Havens quickly found a place in the classroom. Several teachers use the tanks "as a take-off point for science fair projects to teach scientific methodology and research," Keddell said. "The teachers can use them as a motivator for what they're required to teach."

Educators are motivated, too. "We have teachers all over the building with requests in ... because everyone wants one [a tank]," Keddell said.

"This is all our best attempt to bring the kids into the real world. ... It's kind of an `ask and you shall receive' ... be willing to step into the community and provide a good, logical avenue for professionals to step into the schools."

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