2020 was unlike any other year I can remember in the aquarium industry. Pandemic related…
It started when Brandon Rutherford happened upon a two-gallon fish tank at a garage sale. The owner of the tank warned “watch out, my daughter started with this tank and it turned into huge hobby costing thousands of dollars”.
Rutherford, a school teacher at Stratton Elementary in Central Illinois, bought that five-dollar tank and only a few years later now runs a marine biology educational program that involves hundreds of students. Rutherford’s “Coral Reef Project” teaches elementary and middle school science through marine aquarium keeping. Students work during class and stay after school to learn advanced marine biology skills such as propagating coral and breeding clownfish.
Brandon Rutherford comes from a family of ecologists and grew up dabbling in science. After earning a degree in Biology, Brandon decided to share his passion for science with the children in his community.
“I teach in a relatively low income school district. Many kids have never been to the ocean and don’t regularly connect with nature. I believe that all children are interested in the natural world and have an affinity for living things. Students who are disinterested in learning math or reading jump at the chance to complete science experiments. The hands on nature of caring for reef aquariums allows students who are below grade level to participate with their peers. My students take the stewardship of our marine ecosystems very seriously. They’re a source of pride for our school and frequently the confidence kids build while working on my project transfers to other academic subjects, ” said Rutherford.
Not only do the fish fascinate the students, so do the chemistry and biology concepts Rutherford presents as part of his Coral Reef Curriculum.
“Scientific concepts that kids can’t touch or physically see can be abstract and easily written off as yet another mystery. The challenge of my job is to disseminate the information in a way an 8-year old can understand. Luckily, even the most basic chores associated with our project can be instructional. We use the pure water in the tank and add salt, which disappears. Taking a solid and breaking it apart by mixing it with water teaches basic chemistry in a way that makes sense to kids. They can see the salt water behaves differently than the fresh water. I use basic tasks such as mixing salt water to teach rudimentary chemistry. Kids can be literal and are only interested in what they can see or have been traditionally taught. Working daily to culture plankton, adjust water perimeters, and correctly do all of the other tasks on my project imparts an understanding of science concepts that helps make even complex concepts tangible to children.”
The broader mission of the “Coral Reef Project” is to support elementary science learning across the country. Brandon Rutherford is a board member of the Illinois Science Teachers Association and works with teachers across his state to promote project-based science learning. Brandon wants his project to act as a model for other teachers and already has helped several other schools set up similar projects.
“I want to encourage all educators make science learning a mainstay of the elementary curriculum and teach it in a way that makes it fun and accessible to all students. Research shows that an early understanding of basic biology and physical chemistry enables students to be more successful in studying science in high school and beyond. I highly encourage teachers to keep marine aquariums in their own classrooms. Coral reef aquariums are like mini ecosystems and are vehicles for teaching important concepts such as nutrient cycling, pH acid-base relationships, ecosystem dynamics, and trophic levels. Using these systems, you can educate children on a large part of the earth’s ecosystem they may not ever have a chance to learn about firsthand. Public school projects such as mine are often not doable without the support of corporate partners. I want to thank Titan Aquatic Exhibits, Tropic Marin, Quality Marine and LRS Reef Frenzy for their continued donation of product and equipment to keep things going. I’m very excited about what the future holds I look forward to showcasing the hard work of my students.”