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Invasive species study puts sixth-graders in scientist seat

Forest Hills — Question: What has a jawless, round mouth full of teeth, sucks blood from its prey and is a little terrifying and a whole lot fascinating for a classroom of sixth-graders?

In teacher Shelby Horne’s Eastern Middle School science class (and others throughout the district), the answer is a sea lamprey – one they get to see and touch.

“I’m interested in learning about animals, so this is very interesting to me,” said Kingston Nembhard as lab partner Tyler Teliczan handled their lamprey specimen.

Added Tyler: “These are found deeper in lakes, and wherever they can get their food, I imagine.”

For about the fourth year – not including 2020 during building shutdowns – sixth-graders have studied the creatures during  an invasive species unit. 

During class periods over a couple days, they pulled on plastic gloves and goggles to check out the external and internal structures of the unwelcome Michigan lake dwellers. They made note of characteristics such as length and width, color, mouth shape and presence of teeth and fins, and, inside, eggs.

For comparison, they also studied yellow perch.

Ultimately, Horne said, “we’re working toward answering the question ‘Could the sea lamprey have a major impact as a predator on the trout population in the Great Lakes ecosystem?’”

Sixth-graders work to meet learning standards including that they show they can use arguments based on evidence and scientific reasoning. To do that, they research the lampreys’ physical characteristics and determine how those help them remain a problem for other Great Lakes fish. Short answer: It’s the way they swim to evade predators, the way they breathe while they feed, and how many eggs they lay at once.

“Lamprey destroy the food chain,” explained Jack Evans. “They latch onto boats; that’s how they got into the Great Lakes.”

Curiosity Cures the Creeps 

And while students are typically split at first between those who are excited and those who are a bit creeped out, Horne said, “the first time I taught it, I found that within minutes of the specimen being in front of them, the majority of students leaned right in and got to work searching for structures. I think their quick interest even surprised them.

“They learn about them in social studies as well,” Horne added, “but getting to see just how many teeth these small creatures have is amazing.”

And if they just can’t shake the queasies, they adapt. For example, Jaidan Yelding used a probe to show where the gills of her yellow perch connected to the inside of its body, studied its mouth shape and looked for teeth, while classmate Sydney Waite jotted down her observations. For levity, the pair even named their specimens. Their lamprey was dubbed Priscilla, and the perch, Gary.

“I like handling stuff like this, and I’ve always liked poking and prodding at things and figuring out how things work,” Jaidan said. “Oh, I can see the tongue. But I don’t see any teeth whatsoever.”

Said Horne, “It’s awesome to be channeling their interest in the different structures of sea lamprey and yellow perch into the larger discussion about what it is that makes sea lamprey such an effective invader to our Great Lakes ecosystem.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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