California School Science: Death to All Guppies

My children and I blazed through earth science, and we’re on to biology. It’s one subject, at least in its “lab” component that works well for both Neil and Kelly. Kelly marvels and observes while Neil extracts scientific principles from the experiment. A few weeks ago, I got some worms for a few experiments. Our worms expired after a day of our observations and experiments (info: worms really hate being sprayed with perfume). All of us learned quite a bit, and Kelly keeps begging me to get another batch of worms so we can set up a worm farm, this time one more to the worms’ liking.

Anyway, our experiment for today had to do with plant respiration. It required soaking purple cabbage leaves in distlled water to get purple cabbage water, a compound that reacts to oxygen by turning from purple to red. And then I had to find a water plant, like Elodea to place in this water within a dark container. According to my book, within two to three days the cabbage water with elodea will become red, and the one without will remain purple. Just as a test, we all puffed into another bowl of cabbage water using a straw just to observe the transition from purple to red.

Getting a water plant turned out to be harder than I expected. As is typical for me these days, I’d done no preparation, so while Neil worked on his geometry and German, Kelly and I bought the purple cabbage and distlled water. Then I went to what I thought was nearby pet store, but it was simply a pet supply store whose water plants were all plastic. No worries, thought I, as I went down the street to our neighborhood aquarium store: only to find out it (like all too many local businesses these days) had gone out of business while I wasn’t looking.

So after Kelly’s dance class, Neil, Kelly and I tried again, at a local Petco store. To my surprise, the woman working in the aquarium section seemed to be downright angry at my request for elodea, and said her store didn’t carry elodea because of the unethical experiments that were being done with it. I was a bit stunned: what was going on with a common water weed? I was glad she didn’t know what we’ve been doing with celery and potatoes lately!

I apologetically detailed our experiment to her. As it turns out, it wasn’t the use of elodea she minded as much as its standard use, in the local schools, for sure-to-fail experiments with guppies. The experiment she thought I wanted to do is a misconstruction of a biosphere. According to this Petco associate, school children in the local districts are told that if you seal up a guppy and spring of elodea in a jar, the elodea will provide enough oxygen for the fish to live on. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account that both living creatures need water circulation and a much bigger area (like an aquarium, not a jar) for this to have a chance of working. All you get in this version, which seems to be a beaurocrats’ idea of taking a larger experiment and turning it into something that can be done inexpensively out of the classroom, is a dead guppy and a dead plant. Wow, whatta way to get kids excited in biology…

She also told me she’d stopped carrying guppies all together because the local high school had appalled her with another experiment: take 5 guppies, put them in 5 jars and feed them different types of food to see what happens. Guess what happens: they all die, and this was anathema to someone whose main job responsibility is to keep fish alive. When she didn’t want to sell the guppies for experimentation, she was further insulted that the students would just tell her “well, it’s my money.” Yeah, kid, in your class on capitalism, you were told about demand, but I guess the school thought that other part about individualism was just a little too racy for governmental institution to cover.

She warmed up to us a little when I explained that we’re homeschoolers, and we just don’t roll that way, and we certainly weren’t planning on killing pet fish in the name of science. I told her about Kelly and the worms, as well as the silkworms another homeschooler had brought to our park day so all the children could observe and learn. She let Neil and Kelly feed the goldfish, and asked them if they could estimate how many of them were in the tank. (Kelly guessed 100; Neil used a more advanced method of estimation and came up with 240; the actual answer was about 300 in three partitions, so both were pretty close.) And she sold me some bamboo which is now (I hope) turning the purple cabbage water red within the darkened container.


  1. Chris

    I bet Kelly would enjoy a backyard vermiculture project. Not something I’d want to do here; our HOA, which won’t even allow clotheslines, probably also frowns on composting besides which our yard is basically a concrete jungle, but it would probably work great in your neck of the woods.

  2. S.L.

    I would totally come over and help Kelly plant worms. I used to keep snails in ice cube containers until my mom told me to put it outside the house.

  3. Dee

    Hi, what a great story!

    If you do anything with worms or anything alive, actually, remember not to put organisms outside that you did not find there. This is for two reasons. First, many species are not native. In North America, much of the continent has few native earthworms. So while earthworms are great for closed container vermiculture, do not release them outside.

    Second, your released organism can spread disease. The collapse of many amphibian populations is in part due to a fungus which scientists believe has been spread by people releasing frogs after their use as pets or in science projects.

    Either one of these stories would be great to investigate with your kids. Keep it up.


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