A group of West St. Paul middle-schoolers spent mornings during their spring break spritzing geckos and salamanders with water, feeding beetle larvae to a skink and testing the water quality in tropical fish tanks.
And they did it all without leaving their middle school.
As part of the Marine Team, a club at Heritage E-STEM Magnet School, kids get to care for an exotic menagerie of fish and reptiles, including a 13-foot Burmese python named Kaa. And their responsibilities don’t end when school is on break.
“I think in part it’s an interest club, but there’s also an education part to it. Overall, it’s about getting kids interested in science,” said Terry Doud, Marine Team adviser and middle-school science teacher. “For some of them, it’s a possible career later on.”
The club was started three years ago by Doud, who has been interested in fish and reptiles since he was in high school. Today, the club has about 80 members in grades five through eight, with two other science teachers, Tom Schlehuber and Nick Gross, also serving as advisers.
“I think kids are very interested in living things like this. And there’s such a diversity here, there’s something for everyone,” Doud said. “They’re able to be in almost constant contact with them this way.”
All students can be members as long as they’re willing to come in mornings before school — Tuesdays are for “critter care” and Thursdays are for fish. The club occasionally organizes other after-school activities, like snorkeling trips to Minnesota Sea Life Aquarium at Mall of America.
“We get so many opportunities to do things. It’s not like any other club, and it’s fun doing stuff with your friends and taking care of animals,” said Bella Nelson, a seventh-grader.
In addition to coming in over spring break to clean gecko cages, Nelson helped feed superworms, or beetle larvae, to the Australian blue-tongued skink, a lizard. Nelson and about 20 other students also helped with the animals last summer.
“I think it’d be fun to be a marine biologist, because we already know so much,” Nelson said.
When students walk into Heritage, they’re greeted by a 315-gallon reef tank filled with colorful tropical fish near the front entrance. Nearby, a handful of bright-green geckos lounge in a glass enclosure. Both displays are maintained by the Marine Team.
Counting fish and corals, “there’s hundreds of different living things” throughout the school, Doud said, estimating that the front aquarium alone houses 70 to 80 different species.
The club’s focus also coincides with Heritage’s emphasis on science and the environment, and Doud said he sometimes incorporates the animals into his lessons. The leopard geckos, for instance, “fit in nicely with the genetics curriculum” because students can see how genes affect traits like pattern and color, he said.
And then there’s Kaa, a 90-pound python that Doud has kept as a pet for 17 years. The snake inhabits a glass cage in Doud’s classroom and eats rats that he keeps in a special freezer.
Since Marine Team animals “need to be easy for kids to handle,” the python “is probably not the best thing,” he joked.
This year, the Marine Team added a new component: Kids can take charge of their own 10-gallon tanks, deciding what kind of fish to put in them, then taking care of them.
The individual tanks “are great, because that was one of our goals for the Marine Team — to have a project where [students] do the budget, research and water testing all on their own,” Doud said.
With mostly saltwater tanks, kids have to understand how to maintain water quality, he said.
“With the chemical tests, they’re learning chemistry skills,” Doud said. “And some of that learning should benefit them as they move into higher-level classes.”
For fifth-grader Marcus Michienzi, the club’s draw was getting to take care of tropical fish. He came to school during spring break to prepare his tank for the fish that he’ll order soon.
Joining the Marine Team was also beneficial because “it helped welcome me to the middle school,” Michienzi said.
Doud and the other science teachers’ enthusiasm is contagious, said Sarah Shanley, Heritage’s magnet coordinator.
“Since the club has started, other staff members have wanted to add tanks. It’s fun to see staff go and ask [Terry] questions about it,” Shanley said. “When you have three passionate science teachers, it’s hard not to get excited about it.”