Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.
By: Austin De Rubira
In Miranda Carrow's Chabot Elementary classroom one day just before the end of the school year, four third graders huddled around a plastic tray, poking, prodding and observing a couple of feisty crayfish.
"My favorite part is the pinchers," said one third-grade boy.
"Probably the pinchers," said another, when asked to name his favorite aspect of the crustacean's physiology.
"My favorite is the egg pore on the female," said Kate Gross-Whitaker, after a few moments of thinking it over.
The class' favorite subject to talk about, however, is crayfish mortality. Earlier this year, two of the animals escaped, only to be found the next morning, dried-out and dead. It was high drama for Kate and her friends.
"One was over by the white board and some kids who were sitting near it were like, 'Look, there's a crayfish!' and like half the class ran over there," she recounted. "And the substitute was like, 'You're supposed to be doing your work!' And later we found one hidden between the bookshelf and the cabinets over there."
When asked if she thinks science is fun, Kate immediately started nodding. "Yeah," she said.
But that fun is expensive. A single crayfish costs two bucks if you buy it from a supply house, as most schools do. A district the size of Oakland can pay $80,000 for a year's supply of animals for elementary schools. So in a desperate cost-cutting move, Oakland school officials have squeezed that figure down to $8,000. Not by skimping on the critters, but by raising their own.
"We have several 55 gallon fish tanks with live plants and guppies," says Caleb Cheung, the district's science administrator as he walks past aquariums and trays swimming and squirming with life. "Over here we're breeding trays of aquatic snails. We have several trays of meal worms down here; we have night crawlers and pill bugs, which are also called rolly pollies."
Cheung's in charge of this modest zoo, housed in a former army warehouse in East Oakland. He'll spend the summer looking after the animals and, when school starts again, he'll deliver them to the classrooms where they'll become the subjects of experiments and lesson plans.
"The program is very unique because it doesn't mainly consist of text books," he says. "And the students get to experience science hands-on."
Turns out students remember a lot more when they do science, rather than just read about it. But California's $26 billion budget shortfall has jeopardized state money for education, putting programs like this at risk.
"If we weren't raising the live organisms, I don't think it would be sustainable as a district," he says.
Norton Grubb, a professor of education at the University of California--Berkeley says it's always like this in a budget crisis: resource-heavy subjects are the first to go.
"Subjects like music, art, history, science... all of those get less resources," Grubb says. "They're not part of the core."
Grubb says while Cheung's do-it-yourself operation shows ingenuity, it also reveals the extreme measures many school officials go to when trying to preserve their programs.
"When district officials or school teachers start doing things like raising their own lab animals, it means they're not spending time on other aspects of instruction," he says.
But science educators like Caleb Cheung know that if instruction is left to text books, fewer schools kids will ever know the drama that unfolds through hands-on study of living organisms...and dying ones too.
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