Animals in the classroom program enhances science lessons

Monday, December 24, 2007 | 1:06 p.m. CST; updated 11:27 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Rosie awoke. She had been sleeping again. The light from the classroom appeared to startle her.

Kim Harl was staring at her. Four of the students in her second-grade class at Mill Creek Elementary School were staring as well.

Rosie didn’t move, perhaps hoping that if she remained still, nobody would notice her.

Her spiky-short hair was matted, as if she had slept on it wrong. She made motions as if she were about to hurry away, but then she didn’t.

Harl reached toward Rosie, gently scooped her up and handed the tiny black bundle to a student.

“Whoa,” the girl said, her cupped hands full.

Harl then removed Rosie’s little house and brushed it off. Crickets — Rosie’s future dinner dates — scattered across the cage.

Rosie the tarantula is among a few hundred creatures, including Madagascar hissing cockroaches and tree frogs, in the Animal Excursion Program of the Columbia Public School District.

Through the “critters program,” as it is known, teachers can request animals from a selection of more than a dozen species to be brought into their room for a week.

These animals become part of the teacher’s lesson plan for the week and are then returned to their more permanent homes at the district’s curriculum center on Vandiver Drive.

The critters program, funded this year by a $15,000 grant from the Columbia Public Schools Foundation, has been around for almost 20 years. Since 1999, when the district dropped it from the budget, the program has been funded entirely by the foundation.

“Teachers can use the animals for writing prompts, to teach responsibility, as awards, for math and measuring — how long? what do they weigh? — for social studies — where do they live? — and for science, teaching about adaptations,” said Sara Torres, who coordinates the district’s science department.

“The program really gives the students a chance to interact with what they are learning about and also teach them how to respect life.”

The task of caring for the creatures is managed by Sarah Hulen, who looks out for Rosie as well as guinea pigs, hamsters, leopard frogs, box turtles, millipedes, anoles (a type of lizard), fish and iguanas. They all live in self-contained shelters but side by side in a room with the sharp but stale smell of shavings and pet food.

The week Rosie visited Harl’s classroom, she wasn’t the only guest. Two hamsters, Raven and Midnight, were there, too.

“It’s really cool,” said Dalton Nunamaker. “We learn like what they eat and how they feel and what their habitats are.”

Katie Kirchhofer added, “It’s really fun because we always get them out and we get to hold them sometimes. We learn about what they eat and how they eat and what they do to live.”

Harl said she usually has the students watch the animals and write what they observe in their science notebooks.

“Sometimes they draw and label the pictures, or cut and paste,” Harl said, “and they usually write something.”

She said the students perked up and were more excited to learn about science when they were caring for and observing the animals.

The room was certainly electric when Rosie was out and about, being passed from hand to hand. However, one of the students was a little leery of getting too close.

“I’m staying as f-a-a-a-ar away from that tarantula as I can; he looks re-e-e-ally scary,” said Lanny Johnson. “If I would have held him, it would have freaked me out. I’m not a big fan of spiders.”

As Lanny was speaking, he turned around and received Midnight from a classmate, a large smile on his face. After passing her on, he returned to his desk and logged what he learned in his science notebook.

Rosie, Midnight and Raven returned to their home in the curriculum center and caretaker Hulen the next morning. The impression they left on the kids, though, would likely stick around much longer.

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