By Christine Brovelli-O’Brien, Ph.D.
Looking for an entry-point into a conversation with your middle school students about science and ethics? The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm is a fantastic choice, with its take on the perennial question of “just because you can do something, should you?” Told in the first-person by Ellie, a puzzle-obsessed sixth-grader, the book weaves this concept of scientific ethics and inquiry into a “fountain of youth” quest. A fun and quick read, Holm’s book is both sci-fi mystery and middle grade novel, an amalgam of scientific experiments, first crushes, divorced parents, and carving out your own path in life.
Ellie is steeped in the arts because of her mom, a high school drama teacher, and her dad, an actor, but it’s her maternal grandfather (a middle-aged man who now inhabits the body of a teenage boy – seriously) who introduces Ellie to the powers of bacteria and to great scientific minds in history, particularly J. Robert Oppenheimer. “Oppenheimer’s Dilemma” – that is, the remorse he felt over inventing the atomic bomb – plays a large part in Elli’s decisions about her own experiments and her grandpa Melvin’s.
The discussion questions in the back of the book flesh out the idea of never giving up on the pursuit of your own dreams and interests. Through Ellie’s ethical and scientific ups and downs, Holm also empowers middle-grade readers to keep trying: “Scientists fail again and again. Sometimes for our whole lives. But we don’t give up, because we want to solve the puzzle,” Melvin tells her. These discussion questions will get your students to think about their own approach to the ethical questions posed in the story and how they might respond if they were in a similar situation as Ellie.
“Ellie’s Gallery of Scientists” provides photographs and a brief overview of a few of her favorite scientists, which your students can use as a springboard to dig a little deeper into their own research-based interests. Using the book’s tagline “Believe in the Possible,” ask your students, what would your experiment be? What would your investigate and how? What are potential obstacles, complications, and outcomes of conducting this experiment? Just how far would you go?
A fun way to combine Ellie’s love of puzzles with scientific inquiry is to create a “breakout box” session in your class. These challenges, a take on escape rooms, require your students to collaborate with their classmates to solve mysteries. You can create a series of puzzles that your students need to solve to “unlock” the lab and identify the secret formula.
If you’re looking for ways to incorporate the intersection of science and humanities in the classroom, check out this STEM Read podcast Inquiry with Zack Gilbert and M.T. Anderson. In this podcast, our own Gillian King-Cargile and Dr. Kristin Brytenson chat with Gilbert, a social studies teacher who uses game-based learning in the classroom, and Anderson, author of books such as Landscape with Invisible Hand and Feed, about inquiry, science, and the importance of asking questions.
So, you may be asking yourself, how do goldfish factor into this book and what do they have to do with scientific inquiry? Who or what is the fourteenth goldfish? This mystery, dear reader, can be solved by delving into Holm’s charming book. Keep your eyes peeled this fall for The Third Mushroom, the next installment in the series.