Classroom Zoo: Practicing Ethical Research on Animals

By Poling, June | Science Scope, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Classroom Zoo: Practicing Ethical Research on Animals


Poling, June, Science Scope


"Who wants to drink five energy drinks so I can see what happens to your heart rate?" asked an eighth-grade student working on the procedures of her inquiry project. Another student discussed how he was going to keep food away from his hamster for two days to motivate it to go through a maze faster. Enthusiasm filled the classroom as students shared their topics. I smiled as I thought about how great it was to see students excitedly engaged in science. Then it hit me: Some students were proposing projects that crossed ethical boundaries. Was it OK to allow students to experiment on each other? What if the hamster died?

I knew I would have to be the bearer of bad news and tell my students that research has limitations. I also recognized at that moment the need to teach ethical research practices. As a result, I developed the classroom invertebrate zoo project. In this project, students take on the role of zookeeper, and their research protocols undergo a screening by a peer-review board. When the zoo opens, students conduct their approved investigation and present their findings to the class. Throughout the project, students experience how to responsibly conduct scientific research.

Teacher background

The ethics of science research is an ever-growing and important field (UNESCO 2004) that dates back to the mid-20th century. Regulations pertaining to human experimentation resulted from the ethics set forth by the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. These became known as the Nuremberg Code of ethics for human experimentation (Bertholf 2001). (This historical link is a good source for a cross-curricular lesson between this project and social studies.)

In the United States, regulations related to the ethical treatment of animals stem from the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which is enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (Allen and Crawford 2000). The USDA stipulates that any institution using laboratory animals for research or instructional purposes must have an oversight committee, which is called the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The IACUC oversees all aspects of the care and use of animals at the research institution, and committee members review all experimental proposals at the institution for compliance with the regulations (Allen and Crawford 2000).

The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science has a wonderful handbook, Caring for Animals: A Guide to Animals in the Classroom, that provides valuable information about housing animals in the classroom (2008). This guide focuses primarily on vertebrate animals, but the safety and care protocols should be followed for the invertebrate zoo project as a way to model ethical treatment of animals in the classroom. NSTA's official position on using live animals in the classroom provides another resource for developing an understanding of safely housing animals (Roy 2011).

Notes about this project

Be sure to check school policies concerning housing invertebrate animals in the classroom and policies on experimentation on animals. It is also important to check on possible student allergies to the animals expected in the zoo. Make sure students' lab safety contracts are up to date.

Students need prior knowledge of scientific inquiry methods. I use this project as an end-of-year assessment of students' skills in conducting investigations and communicating their results, which meets the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) of science and engineering practices, specifically the following: developing and using models; analyzing and interpreting data; planning and carrying out investigations; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (Achieve Inc. 2013). In addition, students gain understanding of how the body of an invertebrate is a "system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells" through guided discussions and research (MS-LS1-3) (Achieve Inc.

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