Using live vertebrate animals to demonstrate learning and memory is typically
not done in high school biology classes. We designed an apparatus and protocol
by which students observe learning in fish. Students generate questions and
discover answers (e.g., does age, sex, species, or chemical exposure impact
learning and memory outcomes)?
Key Words: Animal model; behavior; fish; inquiry-based science; learning; memory;
T-maze; environmental chemical.
Getting students to be scientifically literate and possess analytical skills
to critically assess what they hear and read can be a challenge. Since
zebrafish are increasingly used to model biological processes (Wilk
et al., 2018) and behavior (Templeton, 2017) in high school biology
classes, we designed a method so that students can ask questions
specifically about learning and memory that are relevant to them. Students can develop experiments that lead to a data-determined realiza-tion that even small amounts of chemicals can substantially affect
learning and memory. Our approach uses research-based teaching
strategies to engage learners by fostering questions that lead to outcomes promoted by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
The questions for teachers are (1) how are students provided
with hands-on experiences that effectively model learning and
(2) how do teachers provide a foundation for students to examine
simultaneous variables (e.g., chemical exposure at different ages)?
Finding answers to such questions in most high school settings is
difficult because using animals, especially vertebrates, in classrooms
to test hypotheses assessing learning (acquiring knowledge and/or
skills) and memory (storing and recalling information) is generally
not attempted. The difficulty of maintaining vertebrate animals in
classrooms, short class periods in relation to the time it normally
takes to conduct behavior experiments, the ability to use simple
protocols that parallel those used in scientific laboratories, and
the cost of apparatuses are significant barriers to conducting learn-
ing tests. It becomes unlikely, therefore, that students will have
opportunities to collect meaningful data and analyze outcomes
from classroom experiments investigating learning.
High schools and colleges use experiments examining simple
learning in invertebrate species (Abramson, 1990; Phelps et al.,
2004) but avoid experiments in the more complex processes of vertebrate cognition (College Board, 2012). Advance Placement (AP)
Psychology courses do not use animal experimentation and limit
lab exercises to examinations of human behavior (May & Einstein,
2013; College Board, 2014). In short, there is a significant gap in
high school curricula using vertebrate models to study learning
and memory in terms of the range of variables (e.g., age, sex, species,
and chemical exposures) that affect learning outcomes. We have met
this challenge by designing and field testing an apparatus that is portable, inexpensive ($20–30/unit), and simple to build, requires no
electronics to operate, is easy for students to use, and allows students
to design experiments that match their own personal interests using
small fish from pet stores.
To ensure that the use of animals is ethical and scientifically justified, and that the animals are treated humanely and receive good-quality care, there is careful oversight by the Animal Care Program
at UW-Milwaukee (UWM). In addition, teachers in the program
undergo training in the ethical use of animals in research, which is
taught by the UWM research animal veterinarian. Also, teachers
must sign an agreement that they will care for the fish according to
the regulations of the National Research Council (2011).
Why Use Fish?
Space is limited in most classrooms, and resources to keep animals
are scarce. Small fish (e.g., minnows, zebrafish, comet goldfish,
and guppies) serve as excellent models of complex learning and
are easy to obtain and maintain, requiring minimal space to allow
large numbers of animals to be held for statistically relevant sample
sizes. These species are especially useful because they can be bred
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 5, pp. 352–359, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.5.352.
My Fish Is Smarter Than Your Fish:
Inquiry-Approach Methods to
Examine Learning in Zebrafish
Exposed to Environmental
• DANIEL N. WEBER, RENEE A. HESSELBACH,
DAVID H. PETERING, CRAIG A. BERG