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SD Department of Education
Dec. 2018  

Bringing sea life to South Dakota at Buchanan Elementary

Not many South Dakota kids get to learn some of their fifth-grade science standards through regular hands-on experience with a 90-gallon saltwater reef aquarium. But that’s what happens in Kyle Falk’s fifth-grade classroom at Buchanan Elementary in Pierre.

Falk’s classroom is home to likely the largest corporate-sponsored saltwater aquarium in a five-state region. The closest one like it, that he’s aware of, is in Chicago.

Falk and aquarium

How does a Pierre elementary school set up a 90-gallon saltwater reef aquarium?
In spring 2018, for their year-end project, Falk’s future-minded fifth graders decided they wanted to create something for their school that would contribute to learning for years to come. Falk suggested a saltwater reef aquarium, and his students liked the idea.

Falk had actually been reading about how to start such an aquarium for about three years. Of course, it’s one thing to casually research an idea. Now his students wanted to make that idea a reality.

We’re going to need some help
With no blueprint to follow and an unsurprising lack of marine biologists to consult in Pierre, Falk started with his own money and bought an inexpensive tank.

Then he had the idea to start emailing companies that specialize in the necessary supplies and equipment. Falk says, “I wrote them, ‘We’re a landlocked state, about as far from an ocean as we can get. What would you tell me if I said I wanted to start a saltwater reef? What advice could you give? What equipment would be cost-efficient?’”

The response he received was beyond his wildest imagination.

First, The Coral Merchant, a company in Michigan, offered to donate a tank and stand. “And then it started catching on,” Falk says. “All of a sudden another company said, ‘Well, we want to be a part of this, too, if they are. We’ll give you pumps and some other things.’ It just snowballed from there, and I got company after company to come onboard and sponsor us with all the equipment.”

Wade Richardson, owner of The Coral Merchant (and cousin of a couple of Falk’s students) even traveled to Pierre for three days in April 2018 to help with construction of the aquarium. A former teacher, Richardson also spent a day talking to Buchanan fifth graders about the project they were undertaking.

Falk and his students documented the entire project as it came together. The Classroom Coral website features video, photos and blog entries. This year’s class will continue updating the website.

Equipment is one thing; what about the fish?
On a recent morning in Falk’s classroom, his science classes were preparing questions to ask during a Skype videoconference with Cindy Delillo. Delillo is a marine biologist with Quality Marine in Los Angeles, who responded to one of his initial email inquiries. Quality Marine supplies Sea World and other major aquariums with fish.

Delillo regularly speaks with Falk’s students via Skype, and her employer donated all the fish in the aquarium. Falk’s students chose the fish for the aquarium after researching what kinds of fish their aquarium could support and what kinds of fish can live together.

This year’s students will research and choose some additional fish, and then the project will shift to focus on growing coral.

Falk in front of class

Building relationships
In addition to Cindy Delillo, Falk’s students have also interacted via Skype with SeaWorld biologists who do various demonstrations with animals.

Falk is currently in communication with producers of the Animal Planet show, “Tanked,” which is all about building big, elaborate aquariums. “They want to Skype with us about how they build aquariums,” Falk says. “They’re very knowledgeable. It’s kind of a comedy on TV, and they seem kind of off-the-wall, but when you talk to them, they really know their stuff.”

Impacting multiple subjects and grade levels
The aquarium plays a role in several classes besides science. Students use it as a subject for “quick writes” in language arts. In math, they use the aquarium to calculate volumes, ratios and fractions. Students are responsible for feedings, and they take specific gravity readings daily (monitoring the water’s salt content). Other grade levels are also welcome to observe the aquarium and use it for classroom activities.

Earning recognition, pursuing excellence
In 2018, Falk’s Classroom Coral Project earned the School Administrators of South Dakota’s Little Red Schoolhouse Award for the Pierre School District.

The endeavor has also prompted Falk to pursue his master’s degree in science education, with an emphasis on earth science. With his plans to take oceanography and hydrology classes, the future appears bright for Pierre’s saltwater reef aquarium.

Falk's classroom

Falk's Classroom

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