Magic dragons

How about an eight-foot boa constrictor in the classroom? Reptiles have a positive influence on learning and behaviour, says Heidi Moulton

How about an eight-foot boa constrictor in the classroom? Reptiles have a positive influence on learning and behaviour, says Heidi Moulton

Would you dare keep an exotic reptile in your class? If not, consider this: what better way to teach a biology lesson than to let pupils see and feel the spikes of a bearded dragon? Anatomy and physiology are immediately brought to life, and behaviour is demonstrated in a way no textbook could ever achieve.

Surely nothing is as effective in a lesson on the animal food chain than observing it in action: the stealth, then slow stalking technique of the mantis before their lightning strike exemplifies the skill of the hunter; the stillness of the stick insect that preserves its life, unlike the more active crickets, whose busy foraging fatally gives away their position to the geckos.

I have kept reptiles in my classroom for the past eight years and have found they bring not only educational benefits, but also powerful tools of behaviour modification in certain pupils. Boys are attracted to the reptiles, and they are immediately engrossed in the lesson. Often I hear: "Miss, if we're good can we get the lizards out at the end?" It is music to my ears.

There are two bearded dragons, four leopard geckos, an elderly Asian water dragon, an African royal python and a giant Asian praying mantis in separate vivaria in my teaching lab.

Teachers often think they are not allowed to keep animals in school, but this is not true. Providing sensible precautions are taken with hand washing and cleansing, there is little risk to anybody's health, and the learning opportunities are enormous.

CLEAPSS, the advisory service for science teachers, can provide supporting information. But as long as you have completed a risk assessment form to identify potential risks (a low one of salmonella) - and the steps you are taking to reduce them - there are no barriers.

Nowadays there seems to be an increasing proportion of young people with allergies. But this is a supporting reason for keeping reptiles - they are low in allergens and tend to be confined in tanks. For those with allergies to furry mammals, it's wonderful to be able to interact with a living creature that does not reduce you to a sniffling, wheezing mess.

One problem in keeping a collection of exotic animals is their tendency to expand exponentially. So the no-nos here are giant African land snails and Indian stick insects, which reproduce at an alarming rate.

Our insects are also used to support a fascinating cross-curricular activity between engineering and science.

I run a robotics club for Year 10 pupils where we build and program robots. We decided to design and build a walking six-legged robot. But after my colleague from the maths department attempted to calculate the number of ways a creature could move six legs in turn, we thought it might be simpler to observe the walking behaviour of our insects. We found that insects all walk with the same gait (namely the pattern in which they move each of their six legs in turn).

This project was chosen as one of last year's nine finalists in the Rolls- Royce Science Prize, an annual awards programme for science projects in schools. We won pound;5,000 towards funding the upkeep of the animals.

There are increased responsibilities in terms of cleaning the vivaria, ordering food and managing the animals in the holidays. But if you run it as a reptile club and train your pupils, you can reduce the work to manageable levels.

My pupils take the animals home in the holidays, with our caretaker transporting the larger tanks in the school minibus. I have only had one irate mum on the phone when her son arrived home with an eight-foot boa constrictor when she was expecting a hamster.

This young man had been so keen to take the reptile home, he waved the permission letter under her nose to sign and asked her rather breezily if he could look after one of the school animals. Failing to follow the sage advice to always check the small print, she agreed. She was absolutely horrified when a tank arrived with a rather large, but cuddly and friendly, snake in it.

I have a tremendously supportive headteacher who has given so much of her time, resources and funding, without which it would have been much more difficult.

The bearded dragons amazed us one day by laying 30 eggs. The headteacher covered my lesson to allow me to get the necessary supplies for the impromptu Woodchurch lizard maternity wing. When 11 baby bearded dragons hatched, they delighted everyone. Pupils from my form helped with the hand feeding every break and lunchtime. They even stayed after school to help pop tiny crickets into the hungry mouths of these delightful infant lizards.

All our pupils like interacting with the animals and so are better behaved. And, best of all, biology as a subject has managed to intrigue, engage, motivate and stimulate. We want to establish an optional GCSE course in animal care. It is our duty as science teachers to utilise every possible method in our arsenal to give our pupils the excitement, passion and commitment that we were once given by our teachers, and which led us into our careers.

Heidi Moulton is a science teacher at Woodchurch High School in Merseyside.

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