Examining Zachary’s Fish: Demystifying Science for Children

Sheri Leafgren

My kindergartner Zachary once smuggled a frozen fish into the classroom and attempted to dissect it with a pair of children’s safety scissors and a toothpick. The fish, stored by his mother in the freezer, was Zachary’s keepsake from his first fishing trip, waiting to be mounted and displayed as a trophy.

Motivated by curiosity about biology and by some recent mysterious deaths of a number of fish and a turtle in our indoor classroom pond, Zachary already had some experience making discoveries at our classroom “take-apart” center. This is a place where children use screwdrivers, saws, pliers, and sometimes hammers to dismantle cast-off small household appliances, such as telephones, speakers, and toasters. In this spirit of investigation, Zachary was determined to take apart his special fish to see “how it works.”

Children come to school with a natural curiosity and enthusiasm for making sense of the world around them. In the science classroom, how can we keep open the avenue for children to inquire, discover, and pose and solve problems that not only make the world understandable but also have an impact on it?

First, it’s important to both encourage and direct children’s sense of wonder. This includes helping them to pose a problem, investigate it, and use the proper tools to carry out their search for meaning. In early childhood education, the technology for science often operates at a simple but critical level. A magnifying glass, a microscope, forceps, or medicine droppers can help children extend the use of their five senses and sharpen their ability to gather information. Of course, young children need to be taught how to use these—and all science tools—properly.

Kindergarten students at Stewart Africentric Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, prepare a microscope slide for observation. (Photo courtesy of Sheri Leafgren)

Seeking Science Role Models

Because the tools available in the take-apart center were obviously unsuitable for his investigation, I had to cut short Zachary’s impromptu fish experiment, but his attempt inspired me to invite a biochemist friend to give my kindergarten classes their first chance to meet a real scientist. The next day, the biochemist—armed with scalpel, probe, and forceps—carefully dissected Zachary’s fish under the intense scrutiny of 28 kindergartners and the watchful eye of our video camera, which projected the operation onto a TV monitor. The biochemist described how important it is to use the right tools and appropriate techniques for gathering scientific information. Our guest scientist explained that taking the fish apart was necessary to see inside but that some precision and knowledge are required to uncover—without mutilating—the parts of the fish that can inform and inspire further inquiry.

My students’ experience with the biochemist inspired me to seek ways to create more opportunities for students to meet with practicing scientists who could lead them in authentic inquiry. The inner-city school where I taught at the time—Stewart Africentric Elementary School in Akron, Ohio—embraces a holistic philosophy of learning and living that emphasizes students’ health and well-being as a crucial part of their development.

To reach the dual goals of having students examine their nutrition and of demystifying the scientific world and demonstrating its attainability to young children of color, our school applied for and won a $10,000 Toyota Tapestry Grant through the National Science Teachers Association. Our winning project—”If We Are What We Eat, Then We Must Have Eaten a Scientist!”—was an inquiry-based exploration of the nutritional value of the foods we ate daily in school-provided lunches and in lunches brought from home.

Dissecting Meatballs

My goal in the project was to encourage the curiosity of 5-year-olds and lay out in a natural way the elements of the scientific method. My students investigated their environment and their diets by gathering samples, helping with analysis, drawing conclusions, determining effective and accurate means of representing their findings, and, finally, sharing what they found with their families.

As teachers, we know that authentic inquiry stems from questions robust enough to provoke a need to know and to stimulate more “how and why” questions. Too often, the default mode of thinking is to take the world for granted. At Stewart, students relearn to wonder, to embrace the skepticism of the scientist, to look at the world with soft and receptive eyes, and to see the world as a place that they themselves can affect in a meaningful way.

Just as Zachary “dissected” his first catch, the students in my later class dissected a school lunch. First, we just named the foods: meatballs with sauce, fruit cup, Italian bread, butter. Then we began to look more closely; using probes and small forceps, for example, we deconstructed a meatball and found what looked like four different kinds of food. The students’ comments, although not marked by typical scientific vocabulary, were accurate expressions of their observations: “Eeww! What’s this hard thing?” “I think I see some bread in there!” “Some parts are roundy and some are flat.” Using magnifying glasses, we found lots of colors in the sauce: black, green, and some yellow, as well as the red color we thought it was. Some of the fruit pieces we couldn’t identify. Lunch was never the same for us.

Demystifying the Lab

Through this project, teachers in our school hoped to show students that the science laboratory is not a mysterious separate world. French scientist Bruno Latour (1999) writes,

The only way for a scientist to retain the strength gained inside his laboratory … is not to go outside where he would lose it… . Does that mean that they are stuck in the few places where they work? No. It means that they will do everything they can to extend to every setting… . If this means transforming society into a vast laboratory, then do it. [If people believe] that science stops or begins at the laboratory walls … [they are missing that] … the laboratory is much trickier than that. (p. 272)

As we worked with our kindergartners, we kept in mind that learning doesn’t stop or begin at the classroom walls—that learning, to borrow from Latour, is much trickier than that. Worlds collide when 5-year-olds visit working commercial laboratories to see practiced on a large scale what we practice on a very small scale in our classroom.

Children bring fresh eyes to what we adults often miss. During past visits to labs, my students have spotted and commented about the common functions shared by the classroom and laboratory work: “They use that to look really, really close at something!” “They use those to pick up teeny tiny things!” “Their goggles are littler than ours!” As my student Jamal excitedly pointed out during one visit, “Look! They keep track of their observations, too!” Classroom and science labs share vocabulary as well as procedures.

Being Scientists

As students seek answers to their own questions, they are discovering the importance of real evidence. The use of lenses to extend the senses, of precise tools to carefully gather samples, and of a laboratory to analyze their samples extends their understanding of “evidence.” They are learning to no longer passively accept another’s claim but to become equipped to challenge it or build on it.

With the help of professional role models, my students gained confidence in their abilities to ask questions that helped them explore the world and understand it better. They began to view the world and themselves with new eyes: scientist eyes!

It came as no surprise when I learned that Zachary introduced himself to his 1st grade teacher with the words, “I’m a scientist.” He had achieved an understanding of himself, fortified by a biochemist who had shared his enthusiasm for science with a curious little boy.

Like Zachary, my kindergartners at Stewart not only discovered that they wanted to become scientists, but also recognized in themselves the qualities indicating that they already were scientists. As they examined their lunches, they learned how to frame questions, plan and conduct a simple investigation, use simple tools to gather data and extend the senses, and use data to construct explanations and communicate and critique their work and findings (National Research Council, 1996, p. 122). The students did not merely learn about inquiry and scientific technology, but lived it.

Perhaps the most important concept students carried away with them was the great pleasure that can be derived from doing science. As a teacher, I attribute my own experience with Zachary as the crucial event that prompted me to see children’s natural inquiry abilities and innate engagement with science. Zachary taught me to see the “nature of science” within the “nature of children” (National Research Council, 1996).

Sheri Leafgren, formerly a kindergarten teacher at Stewart Africentric Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, is now a doctoral student and fulltime faculty member in curriculum and instruction at Kent State University. She can be reached at

Source: Adapted from “Examining Zachary’s Fish: Demystifying Science for Children,” by S. Leafgren, 2003, Curriculum-Technology Quarterly, 12(4). Copyright © 2003 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.