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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Creature Features: Mushrooms and Tarantulas and Luna Moths, Oh, My!

Open your classroom to a menagerie of living science projects.
By Alexei Bien

The advent of computers in the classroom has made virtual field trips and science labs a reality. But not every teacher is wired, and not every educator is satisfied with flat-screen encounters for their students, especially when environmental science is the subject at hand. The case can be made that a single living organism to observe and care for can be more useful to a teacher than a simulated jungle. Here is a potential menagerie to consider -- click on the live links for product purchase and lesson plans or ideas.

Credit: © Carolina Biological Supply Company

Rootin' Around

Supplanting the sawed-off, dirt-packed soda bottle, the gel-based Plantarium Garden Lab allows students to watch plants grow above and below the surface in perfect transparence.

Product: Plantarium Garden Lab Kit


Luna Moths

These wan, four-eyed, nocturnal beauties with no feeding ability have a life span of less than a week, so there may be a few tears -- and then, a chance to start a discussion about impermanence and biodiversity.

Product: Luna Moth Cocoons
Lesson Plans: Life Cycle, Facts, or Care Sheet (PDF) for Luna Moths


Credit: Getty Images

Meet the Beetles

If your school budget or policy does not allow for living organisms, fear not; Cornell University's Beetle Science page is a great alternative. Considering the fun fact that one of every five living species is a beetle, it makes sense to invite a virtual band of them in.

Lesson Ideas: Beetle Science


Credit: © Carolina Biological Supply Company.

Frog Eggs to Frog Legs

At the exciting rate that these eggs become tadpoles and then full-fledged frogs, even the youngest students with the shortest attention spans will thrill at the process unfolding in their classroom aquarium.

Product: Frog Eggs
Lesson Plans: Frog Life Cycles


Credit: © Carolina Biological Supply Company.

Tub o' Worms

As this 14-gallon vermicomposter fills up with organic refuse, it has ample space for your students' attention while the worms process waste into rich soil components. The tub comes complete with bedding, redworms, and the activity book Worms Eat Our Garbage.

Product: Worm Composting Classroom Kit
Lesson Plan: Vermicomposting with Garbage-Eating Wonder Worms


Mushroom Modules

Neither plant nor animal, fungus is a kingdom unto itself, as worthy of classroom representation as a bean sprout or a tadpole. The kit from Gourmet Mushrooms includes standards-based lesson plan, anatomy and lifecycle worksheets, and the mushrooms themselves.

Product: Gourmet Mushrooms Inc.
Lesson Plan: Educator's Mushroom Growth Kit


Credit: Getty Images

Leafy Predators

Will students be interested in plants that trap insects, occasionally using fairly gruesome techniques? Might they be fascinated by the nepenthes -- a.k.a. the carnivorous pitcher plant -- known to trap even rodents and birds? Yes, and yes.

Product: Venus Flytraps
Lesson Ideas: International Carnivorous Plant Society


Credit: Veer

Ta-Ta-Tarantulas?

Who better to undo a student's (or teacher's) teeth-chattering arachnophobia than Rosie, the Chilean rosy-haired tarantula, one of the most docile of the giant spiders?

Product: Habitat Kit with Rosy-haired Tarantula
Lesson Plans: Tarantulas


Credit: © Carolina Biological Supply Company.

Ant Farm of the Future

Based on a 2003 NASA space shuttle experiment, this ant farm redefines "lunar colony." The futuristic version of the beloved green plastic ranch will entice budding entomologists with modern sensibilities.

Product: Antworks Ant Farms
Lesson Plan: The Secret Lives of Ants from the University of Kentucky


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Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cynthia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I heartily endorse keeping and using animals in the classroom for their outstanding educational and aesthetic value. However, I am concerned that your Creature Features article and lesson plans give no caveats on releasing non-native species. Luna moths, frogs, and butterflies are mentioned as good animals to raise in the classroom, but what do you do with them once they're grown? Releasing them outside is tempting, but potentially catastrophic to the environment (see the citizen science project involving ladybugs--the introduced species are impacting the natives).

Becky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also see the benefits of having animals in the classroom but only if it is accomplished in a purposeful, ethical and responsible way. One major concern to the enviromnent is invasive species, even if an animal is native to the US does not mean that is native to a local area and even species such a bull frogs have almost lead to the extinction of native pond turtles and other species. Ultimate dispoosal of classroom pets need to be considered BEFORE any creature is acquired and if you are not committed to keeping an animal through its ientire life or responsibly disposing of it, don't even get started.

Wilma Jozwiak's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My daughter is a 4th grade teacher in New York State, where the 4th grade curriculum includes introduction to the concept of biosphere. My daughter is a philosophical vegetarian who was distressed with the accepted strategy for teaching about the biosphere, which involved creating a terrarium/aquarium from soda bottles and including small fish. The fish came by mail, and rarely with all the poor fish still alive - at the end of the unit, teachers "disposed" of the remaining fish, if any had survived. My daughter already has a classroom tortoise (Rylant, after one class' favorite author), but realized more was necessary. She began a vermiculture project. The kids have really gotten into it, conducting any number of experiements with the amount of worm castings created. One budding scientist found what he took to be sprouted seeds (they probably were . . .) when they did their first harvest of castings, and has set up mini greenhouses for each seed with daily observations recorded scrupulously. The kids, along with my daughter and the school's librarian, have started a blog about their worms (http://imabookworm.edublogs.org/). This is a super classroom animal project that does not involve premature death of animals or release of non-native species, and teaches ecologically sound behaviors.

Blair Ogburn's picture

Thank you for sharing that vermiculture project, and I am so proud of teachers that come up w/ their own innovative ideas that especially are cruelty-free.
I am a naturalist who travels to the schools to do nature programs. we use live animals like raptors and reptiles that are non-releasable for some reason (injury, imprint, bought as a pet, etc.). I am trying to think outside of the box now and bring more citizen science into the classrooms I visit. I feel badly about just going in for 1 hour and showing off an animal and then leaving, because I feel that I have not taught these children anything about science except a few facts about my birds and snakes. I believe that we need to empower teachers to have the help and resources to do more citizen science themselves. This is what I hope to do from now on in my job as Naturalist.

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