How to Use Classroom Animals to Spark Life Science Inquiry

Use low-maintenance classroom pets to get your students engaged in life science inquiry investigations.

By Jennifer Sinsel

Life Science Inquiry

“Wow, what’s that?!”

“Gross!  Are those bugs?”

“Cool - do we get to do experiments with those things?”

These are just a few of the comments from my students when I introduced our newest class pets a few weeks ago – Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches! Children love living creatures of all kinds - even those that aren’t soft and furry - and they make for great high-interest life science inquiry investigations. 

Teachers who don’t want high maintenance pets in the classroom can still conduct wonderful experiments with easy-to-manage critters such as hissing cockroaches, mealworms, anoles, and other low maintenance animals. Most students have never seen a hissing cockroach, although they can be cheaply and easily purchased online and shipped to your door. Content with some dog food and occasional fresh fruit treats, they’re also safe, easy to manage, and quite active when kept warm. A favorite characteristic is the hissing sound made when the roach is disturbed or when it is ready to mate.

After allowing my braver students to handle the newly introduced roaches (they don’t bite), we do some research on their habitats, food requirements, and social behavior. During this research, students often discover that males have bumpy “horns” on their heads, while female heads are relatively smooth. This is because the males fight during mating rituals (similar to male deer butting antlers), often hissing continuously. The winning male is usually the one who hisses the most! 

Once the class is more familiar with these creatures, I allow teams of three to four to develop and test a question about hissing cockroaches. Each group receives one or more roaches (depending on their investigation), some string, toothpicks, cardboard, and construction paper of various colors. Findings can be recorded in science notebooks, either in pictures or in words (depending upon the age and ability of your students).

Their directions are as follows:

  1. Consider a question that you would like to answer. You may select a question from those below or you may develop your own question.
  2. Conduct your investigation.
  3. Write up your findings in the form of a lab report in your science notebook.

Some questions you may want to investigate:

  •  Can cockroaches see in color? Find out by testing for color preferences.
  •  Can cockroaches find their way through a maze?
  •  What types of food do cockroaches prefer?
  •  How do cockroaches behave when they are trapped?
  •  How do male cockroaches interact? How do females interact? Are there differences between how they act when   paired with another roach of the same gender versus one of the opposite gender?
  •  Can cockroaches be trained to do certain tasks?
  •  Will cockroaches walk uphill? How high will they climb? What is the steepest angle at which they can climb?
  •  Can cockroaches pull a load?
  •  Do cockroaches prefer open spaces or tight spaces?

The same types of investigations can be performed with other low maintenance creatures, such as mealwormscrickets (both purchased at any pet store), and anoles (small lizards that change from green to brown depending upon mood and surroundings). For more investigations involving critters in the classroom, try one of the following life science inquiry lesson plans.

Life Science Inquiry Lessons:

Observing Mealworms & Earthworms

A series of activities dealing with earth and meal worms is conducted during several days. Students gain an understanding of each creature's natural environment, then experiment with their reactions to changes in color, light, temperature, and food. Then, they observe as mealworms change into beetles.

Backyard Critters

In this lesson, students learn about common invertebrates found in their own backyards. They learn about the physical characteristics of these creatures. They then make charts, tables, and graphs to show their findings. 

Animal Behavior

Students choose a specific animal to observe, then chart its behavior in an ethogram. Students also chart each other's behavior, and learn about the difference between inferring and observing.