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An Education Submerged:

Part I:  Cultivating Veneration

By Ryan Bowen

“Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity.  Our very survival may hinge upon it.”

                           United States President John F. Kennedy, March 1961

The teachers of the world serve a highly important purpose:  to educate those that may bring us forward into tomorrow.  In the future, a better understanding of the world’s ecosystems will be crucial in the fight against disease and starvation, perhaps even the understanding our own creation.  By teaching understanding and compassion of the ocean’s relationships, you may spark a mind that changes the world.

The first zoologist of record was Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), who was fascinated with the aquatic life in the nearby Aegean Sea.  Aristotle was unique in his perception of aquatic life in that he observed the animal’s interactions with the surrounding environment.  These themes would be extrapolated later by Charles Darwin, who explored these relationships in “The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection.”  This work is rarely shadowed in its brilliance, and I highly recommend portions to be used in conjunction with aquarium education.  A free copy of many of Darwin’s works exist here:

Twenty years ago, keeping live corals in captivity was a challenge rarely accepted.  The scientific community was convinced that marine fish would not breed after being collected from the ocean.  Students of the ocean were relegated to visit public aquariums to observe the fascinating relationships below the surface of the water.  Today, we have a unique opportunity:  Breakthroughs in modern industry have led to neoteric versions of “Aquarium Life Support Systems,” i.e. filtration, heating, lighting, and water movement devices.  Many corals reproduce asexually and even sexually in hobbyist’s home aquariums, now that we are able to duplicate the nutrient-poor waters we see in the world’s reefs.  Marine fish are being bred daily in the captivity, thousands of miles from the cyanide wielding collectors.  In fact, buying aqua-cultured (spawned, raised in captivity) livestock is a duty of the conscientious aquarist.  The scientific, moral and therapeutic effects of aquaria are now within the average home or classroom’s reach. 

The opportunities an aquarium presents as a teaching tool are limitless.  Are you currently trying to translate the subject of matter to your third grade class?  An aquarium offers a perfect slice of solids, liquids and gasses for observation.  Are you comparing animals for the purpose of classification?  Fishes are among the easiest vertebrates for children to make simple observations.  Studying the properties of light?  An aquarium of freshwater plants makes an excellent example of the uses of light below the surface of the water.  Having trouble exhibiting the differences of producers and consumers?  The energy relationship is easily demonstrated with a properly stocked aquarium and a well informed tour guide.   An explanation of a fish’s swim bladder can help a class understand the concept of buoyancy.  The delegation of tank upkeep is a wonderful tool in itself! 

Cleaning the system offers a unique view of pollution, and waste removal.  Refilling the system daily can teach the concept of evaporation.  Mixing salt for a water change is a fun way to examine mixtures and solutions.    Closer examination of a power-head can yield some great discussion about forces of motion, waves and currents.  This is a short list that I have arranged, and I’m not even a certified educator!  The vast amount of information that can be relayed to a class through the use of an aquarium is much like the ocean itself: largely unexplored.

“Of the 27 diverse phyla of life, only 17 occur on land, yet 27 of the 27 occur in the ocean…, and so the largest proportion of biodiversity is in the ocean,” explains Bill Fenical, Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine chemist and director of the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine.  “There are one million cells in one milliliter of seawater and they’re all different, yet we know something about only one or two percent of those.”  The sessile invertebrates living in the ocean rely on compounds to do their bidding, be it love or war.  “It is a jungle down there, and there’s heavy competition between phyla and between species; this has produced some quite remarkable compounds,” says Ken Rinehart, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Illinois.  While big business and governments across the globe are well aware of these facts, humanity at large still stands by idly and watches the oceans crumble.  “In just three decades, a shocking 80% of the hard coral in Caribbean reefs has disappeared. Hard coral is the main ingredient of a reef, and the substance other reef creatures depend on for shelter. After analyzing 65 studies of 263 reef sites, scientists from the University of East Anglia and the Tyndall Center for Climate Change concluded that while most of the coral loss occurred in the 1980s, the rate of loss has remained steady,” according to the BBC News.  We urgently need teachers to reinforce the importance of saving the last great natural resource. 

Being from a family of educators, I am familiar with the economic deprivation that is riddling our public school facilities.  Fear not: this hobby is both the most rewarding and the most challenging I have tried to date.  For every successful aquarist, there exists someone with an aquarium in their garage.  Teachers, you have classes of 30+ students!  Aquariums, filters and pumps should be items that you can have parents donate from their garage.  It doesn’t have to be pretty to teach a valuable lesson.  Woodshop classes can easily build stands, lighting hoods and even “Live Rock” with some childlike gusto.  In this series of articles, I’d like to navigate the world’s teachers through some easy projects to get students involved in the creation of marine ecosystems. 

With all my heart, I feel that teachers are heroes.  I hope that you all find the aquarium a valuable tool in enabling today’s youth to appreciate the beauty of submerged life as I do.  I frequently answer questions on setup and maintenance of aquariums on's Daily Q&A Page.  I’ll be happy to answer questions about setting up an aquarium for classroom use, or otherwise.  I’d like to follow-up this work with some simple, aquarium based lesson plans for teachers to start extrapolating upon.  I encourage you to utilize this site’s search feature to answer many questions about aquarium life.  And teachers, it’s free! 

Further Reading and Bibliography

Amber, Dave. "Converging on Marine Reserves."  The Scientist (April 16, 2001): n. page.

Axelrod, Herbert, and Leonard Schultz. Handbook of Tropical Aquarium Fishes. N.p.: TFH Publications, n.d. 

Fenner, Robert M. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist: A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists. N.p.: TFH Publications, 1997. 

Hirsch, E.D. What Your Third Grader Needs to Know: Fundamentals of a Good Third Grade Education. 2nd ed. N.p.: Delta, 2002. 

Home Page. 25 June 2004 <>. 20 Apr. 2004 <>.

Rayl, A.J.S.. "Oceans: Medicine Chests of the Future?" The Scientist  (December 1, 1999): N.p.


Aquaria for education 11/08/08
Good Morning,
I have always found you to be very helpful and kind. It seems from your web page that maybe I should not be asking you this question but you have always guided me in the right direction before. Here is my question. I work in a first and second grade classroom way up in the country where our school has a population of 80 students, grade pre-K - 6. I have set up a 50 gallon tank in the room for a freshwater fish tank. We started this project in September. The students helped to set it up and made a beautiful backdrop for the tank. We just went on our second trip to get more fish for the tank. We have neon tetras, 2 kissing fish, 2 platy's, 1
Cory, 2 gouramis, and 2 angel fish. We have been very lucky and only lost 2 swordtail fish. The students love this tank and so do I. My question is to wonder if you have any articles or suggestions on having fish tanks be a big part of a primary classroom? We test the water for pH, ammonia and nitrates. We are putting an article in our town newspaper about this fun tank. I would like to keep the students inspired and motivated by this tank. Thank you so much for your time and energy!! Sincerely, Veronica
<Veronica, thanks for the kind words. I have used aquaria to teach various things in my occasional career as a high school biology teacher. Mostly we focus on ecology, or more specially, the nitrogen cycle. In other words, how fish and decaying organic matter produce ammonia, how bacteria use that as a source of energy, converting it first to nitrite and then to nitrate.  The nitrate can then be used by plants and algae as a source of nitrogen for protein synthesis. In turn, plants and algae become food for fish directly, or for the snails and shrimps that the fish eat. The nitrogen cycle has "practical value" in an aquarium -- ammonia is toxic, and the filter uses bacteria to turn that ammonia first into nitrite and then into nitrate. Nitrate is relatively harmless. There are two things of note here: first, we're using bacteria to do useful work, a contrast with the assumption many children have that bacteria do nothing but make us sick, a gross calumny on the kingdom of life that practically runs the planet!  Secondly, the filtration process is identical to the one used in sewage farms to process human waste. The flip side to producing nitrate is that if there's too much, the algae bloom, and the tank becomes a swamp instead of a clean tank of water. When algae die, rotting consume oxygen, and in extreme situations this kills the fish. This is, of course, a perfect analogue of eutrophication, where dumping the nitrate from farms and sewage processing plants into rivers causes algal blooms and, at worst, has a catastrophic impact on the ecosystem. If all the fish die in a river, what happens to the animals (e.g., birds, otters) that depend on them for food?  What about businesses that depending on the fish (e.g., fishing, tourism).
In other words, you can use the simile of a fish tank as a "contained ecosystem" to represent how the world at large works. Each level of the food chain depends on the other, and there's a cycling of matter (nitrogen) and energy through the system. Overdo one level (e.g., add too many fish) and things go wrong. Cheers, Neale.>

Re: education submerged
Thank you for the kind compliments. All of the people at the WWM work hard to provide the content for the site and it is gratifying to know that the effort is appreciated. I will forward this e-mail on to the other folks at the WWM.
Thanks again,
Mike Kaechele
Just wanted to say thank you for all your hard work. I am a local fish store owner and have learned a lot from your articles. I really enjoyed "An Education Submerged" by Ryan Bowen. I am attempting to launch a pilot project in Buncombe Co. NC and would like the writers' permission to use some of their educational ideas to sell this to the schools. I have also added a few of my own ideas. I have attempted to get other LFS in my area to assist with equipment donations, needless to say I have given up on that. 
Thanks for your time,
Karen Silver
Fish Tails, Asheville, NC

Re: education submerged
I'm still playing catch-up on this end: Since you purchased the article, isn't she asking your permission?
<No my friend. The content is your property. We only purchase/d limited (one time, Net) publishing rights>
If this indeed is my decision, I'm not inclined to give my article to a business. Would it be prudent to insist that she set up a non-profit organization prior to granting written permission?
<This is what I do. BobF> 



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