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Preparing Students to do Original Research, Part 1: Experimental Classroom Tanks

By Heather Flanagan
November 29, 2016

Belkis Mejia (International School for Liberal Arts), left, and William Leou (Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies) collect New York Harbor water from BOP’s Governors Island Ecodock to test out experimental classroom oyster tank designs.

In this post: how to follow up on student questions in an inquiry-based classroom, how students can set up experimental oyster tanks of their own design, teachers’ thoughts on the best ways for students to research their own questions, how to build a DIY aquarium filter

As participants in the Billion Oyster Project Curriculum and Community Enterprise for Restoration Science (BOP-CCERS), BOP students go beyond monitoring their Oyster Restoration Stations (ORS)– they also design, conduct, and present an original research project based on their restoration experiences at the Annual Billion Oyster Project Research Symposium.  But as teachers know, it’s no easy feat to prepare students for this kind of work!  At “Research Design,” a recent BOP professional development, Curriculum Specialists Ann Fraioli and Annie Lederberg, along with BOP Scientist-in-Residence Michael McCann of the Nature Conservancy, guided middle school teachers through practical ways to engage their students in authentic scientific research that combines fieldwork, lab experiments, and data analysis.


Encounters with live oysters and the community of creatures that live on and around them provide a unique opportunity for students to ask the kinds of meaningful questions that drive their original research.

Student-directed research starts with creating a classroom culture that supports inquiry-based learning, an educational practice that guides students to create knowledge for themselves driven by questioning (and in particular, by the students’ own questions).  (If you’re looking for practical, concrete ways to create this culture with your students, earlier professional developments looked at how to practice inquiry in the field and in the classroom, and these posts can help get you started.)  It’s crucial that teachers create opportunities that spark students’ curiosity, that teachers encourage students to keep asking questions, and that teachers take lots of notes so they can follow up on students’ questions.  But what does “following up” look like?

How to Follow Up on Students’ Questions

One strategy is to engage students in sorting activities designed to get them reflecting on and extending their questions.  As we mentioned in an earlier post, these sorts have several advantages- in them, students:

  • See their own questions typed up and handed out as course material.
  • Read each other’s questions.
  • Have to try to understand the questions, and may ask questions about the questions.
  • Start getting more interested in some of the questions.
  • Give you hints about which ones are their favorites, even before you come out and ask.

At “Research Design,” teachers started the session by sorting a list of real student questions based on what method they could use to find answers.  Could they answer based on data from the field?  From the classroom oyster tank?  From the BOP Digital Platform?  BOP teacher fellow Olivia Bello (KAPPA III) pointed out that some questions could be explored through an oyster dissection, and that based on questions like, “Why is the oyster shell hard?” and “Why is it this color?” a teacher could develop a whole new lesson that examines important concepts like predator/prey interactions.  Clarissa Lynn (Central Park II) thought that water quality questions could be examined using data from the digital platform, noting that a participating BOP school in Tarrytown offered an opportunity for NYC students to compare local water quality with conditions further up the Hudson.

Rachelle Travis (Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts) and Steven House (M.S. 126) got into a lively discussion over whether students’ questions could be answered with just their own field data.  Steven offered that questions related to site conditions, like wind, or how winter weather affects the estuary, depended on being in the field, while Rachelle suggested that could be limiting, and wondered what you’d do if your class field trip day wasn’t windy, or if it happened to be a warm winter day.  Steven agreed that it’s best to get data from a number of sources, but that it’s a better experience for students if they’re out in the field, and they can tie their research to personal experiences.  Rachelle agreed, deciding that the digital platform data means nothing to students without the field data:  “They need it together.”

As an Urban Marine Ecologist, Mike McCann underscored this point that it’s important for scientists to get data in many different ways, through experiments in multiple settings.  “We’re never doing one single experiment.  We’re building a body of evidence, just like if you’re building a court case or something.  If you have this body of evidence that all concurs with each other, it builds our confidence that [the factor being studied is] having the effect that we think.”  Annie encouraged teachers to try to directly link what’s happening in the field with what’s happening in the classroom tank.  In the next section of “Research Design,” teachers had a hands-on opportunity to explore how they could effectively tie the two by designing experimental tanks.

Experimental Tank Activity


BOP Curriculum Specialist Ann Fraioli in the Aquaculture Lab with a 10 gallon aquarium and a plastic bin.

Working in groups, teachers were given a 10 gallon tank and presented with an array of aquarium supplies that could be purchased in a pet store or retrieved from an Oyster Restoration Station.  Ann and Annie asked them to think through what treatments they could give a classroom oyster tank to conduct an experiment.  They also floated the idea that back in their classrooms, teachers could allow their students to set up one or more experimental tanks in addition to the baseline tank, noting that in the interest of exploring experimental designs, teachers could provide students with low cost plastic bins instead of 10 gallon tanks.

There was an excited mood in the room as teachers examined the new materials and thought through their selections with their groups.  Would the group walk outside and grab a bucket of harbor water?


Belkis and William retrieve harbor water.

Or would they use water conditioner and salt to create artificial saltwater- and in that case, how much salt should they add?

Tim and Rachelle add salt to their tank.

Tim Hitchcock (P.S./I.S. 288) and Rachelle add water conditioner and salt to their tank.

Would they add a tank divider?  Fancy bacteria supplements?  Gravel- and what color gravel?  What about fish and other creatures?

After the teachers set up their tanks, Ann and Annie asked them to share what they did, what they were thinking about, and which parts of this activity might function well for students.  Olivia’s group used a permeable aquarium divider, thinking it would allow a class to change the habitat, maybe creating a side with just oysters and a side with oysters and fish.  (Clarissa noted that the divider could be a way to separate oysters from their predators like mud crabs, which are entertaining for students but not ideal for the oysters’ survival.)


From left to right: Olivia, Aniline Amoguis (The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, and Judith Alexander-Edwards (Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts) installing the tank divider.


Olivia shows off her group’s aquarium setup.

Another group thought through the possibilities using different filtering materials, pondering whether a mechanical filter could outfilter an oyster (and thinking it might be interesting for students to examine the contents of the filter to see just what it was filtering out), although teachers wondered whether a highly effective mechanical filter might starve out the oysters.


Practical Considerations for Experimental Tanks in the Classroom

Annie then asked teachers, “What are the pros and cons of giving students a lot of materials and seeing what they’d do?”  William Leou added an additional question- how do you get students excited to answer the same, single research question, even if it’s not their question?  One experimental tank could lead to one experiment, and teachers could add multiple tanks, but at a certain point, physical constraints can become a challenge, like where the outlets are located, whether or not the classroom has a sink, and whether a teacher is sharing a classroom with other teachers or not.  Clarissa offered that sharing the classroom could be a positive, and that exposing non-BOP teachers to an oyster aquarium could help transform the culture of the school.  In that vein, Tim Hitchcock added that you could even put the tank in the principal’s office, or the main office, which would also include more of the school community in the project while giving students space to conduct experiments.


Coming to a principal’s office near you?

As teachers thought through the pros and cons, a common theme emerged- the activity could use some more structure to handle resources that couldn’t easily be replaced.  Steven thought his students might quickly use up all of the supplies, and that he might ask students to look through all of the supplies and come up with a plan before using them.  In Tim’s labs, students must present him with a list of equipment with a rationale first so they aren’t wasting materials.  Aniline Amoguis asks her students to bring in whatever materials they can, which tends to make them more careful.  Rachelle has students fill out a graphic organizer first.

Oyster closeup!

Setting up experimental oyster tanks is a tactile experience that allows learners to play.

Annie challenged this idea, posing that there’s a case to be made for letting students play without a plan- especially considering how the energy in the room went way up once teachers started to touch the oysters and the equipment!  While acknowledging that teachers can definitely run into financial constraints, she suggested that teachers put out “the cheap stuff,” with Amber Howes (M.S. 126) adding that they could portion out the supplies in advance.  In terms of other practical challenges, like getting water to a sink-less classroom, Ann noted that this would be a great time to bring in volunteers- “I would scrounge other adults.”  In the past, Tim has filled up five gallon buckets of water from the custodian’s closet at the end of the day (screw-off lids for five gallon buckets that you can easily open one-handed are available at hardware stores) so they were ready in his classroom the next day.  Rachelle has found that her school custodian loves the project- there may be lots of helpful adults at your school!

The second part of Research Design, lead by Mike McCann, covered how to extract data from the BOP Digital Platform– you can read more about it in our follow up post, “Preparing Students to do Original Research, Part 2: How To Use Data from the BOP Digital Platform.”  We’ve got more great professional developments coming up, including “Build Your Classroom Library” on November 29, the December BOP-CCERS Teacher Fellowship meeting on December 13th, and Statistics for Teachers- Part 1 and Part 2 in January.  We hope you’ll join us!  If you’d like to read more about BOP Schools, keep checking back on the Billion Oyster Project blog for more posts, follow the BOP-CCERS Tumblr, and sign up for our newsletter!

BONUS: Ann Fraioli showed teachers how to make a DIY aquarium filter- or more accurately, a bacteria habitat- using an airstone, pump, gravel, and an empty plastic bottle.  The filter’s gravel creates lots of surface area for nitrogen-reducing bacteria to grow on, and the air stone creates an oxygen-rich environment that these invisible allies thrive in, helping to keep the aquarium’s oysters, invertebrates, and fish safe from ammonia spikes.  (You can read more about why it’s important to reduce nitrogen in your aquarium here.)


Judith drills holes in a plastic bottle to create a DIY aquarium filter.