Shark petting

These East Noble Middle School sixth-graders pet their spiny dogfish shark specimen to collect data about how its skin looks and feels.

KENDALLVILLE — Sixth-graders at East Noble Middle School wrinkled their noses as the odor of formaldehyde met them at the door of their science classes Thursday morning. Inside the rooms, well-preserved spiny dogfish sharks lay in wait on the tables, wrapped in newspapers.

The students soon learned their mission — each table of four students would conduct a scientific dissection of the 2- to 3-foot sharks under the watchful eye of their teachers and outreach volunteers from Science Central, Fort Wayne.

Teacher Ashlie Auer said the hands-on lab was possible for the more than 280 sixth-graders through a Cole Foundation grant funneled through Science Central. Auer said teachers could apply for the grant on a first come, first-served basis by explaining what the project is, why it should be funded and how it would benefit students.

“This project has hands-on experience, fulfills life science standards and teaches about the predator-prey relationship,” Auer said.

Science Central outreach volunteer Stephen Long, a retired science teacher, said the lab will also teach concepts about conservation, and the relationship of body structure and function in animals.

Long said biological science companies prepare specimens for laboratory use. The supply of dissection animals mostly come from commercial fishing, when they are caught in nets along with the desired species. Fisherman sort the sharks out of the catch to be recycled into lab specimens or agricultural fertilizers.

“It’s cool to see how timid the students are at first,” Long said. “It is gross but they’re excited by the end of the lab.”

Outreach volunteer Katie Abrams and Gary Stoops give an introductory presentation about the shark and go over safety rules before the dissection begins.

Everyone wears goggles and gloves to protect their eyes and hands. However, there’s no protection from that strong formaldehyde odor, which seemed to lessen as students got to work.

Students collected data on their shark during the one-hour lab, taking measurements and using a tongue depressor to examine the very sharp teeth. They used small scissors to cut the belly open, identifying organs and body systems and recording information on their worksheets.

Long said such labs are memorable for students and provoke a life-long interest in biology. Students are engrossed in the subject as they identify adaptations the shark has made to survive, and compare the shark’s internal body systems to those of humans.

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