Call these kids the rat pack

Rodents earn accolades in the classroom


Herald Writer

Mary Womack remembers well when her intrepid sixth-grade teacher at Everett’s Whittier Elementary School brought in the rats.

Great teachers, those bulging-red-eyed rodents.

In fact, when it comes to elementary school science, the rats are about all she remembers in any detail.

Rats, she learned 35 years ago, can captivate and motivate young students. So, as a teacher with a classroom of her own, rats, aka Blizzard and Daisy, are back.

"It was that term —‘hands-on’ — you hear a lot in education," said Womack, who teaches third- and fourth-graders.

"My first reaction was ‘Oh, they are messy, and they do smell. They are more work in the classroom,’ but then I thought about how important they were to me," she said.

Childhood memories of scientific exploration won out over adult instincts of inconvenience.

Actually, a couple of classrooms at Penny Creek Elementary in southeast Everett have rats. Down the hall, students in Kristina Kee’s class are monitoring the lives of Sugar and Marshmallow.

The rats are the stars in a five-week nutrition unit.

Two rats per class. One gets sugar water; the other, milk.

The students feed and care for the lab rats while using words like "hypothesis" and learning about scientific methodology. Each week, they weigh them, measure their tails and compare differences in growth, appearance and behavior.

"You can tell which one was getting more calcium and which was having the sugar water," said Morgan Clark, a student in Kee’s fourth-grade class.

The rats came to Penny Creek through a nutrition program sponsored by the Washington State Dairy Council. Each year, the council dispatches more than 400 lab rats to more than 100 elementary schools.

The goal, according to the council, is for students to see how important it is to eat from all the food groups and to learn it is never to late to change diet habits for the better.

Beyond the math, writing, note-taking and science, the rats have helped students learn to work together in small groups, even when it comes to cleanup, the teachers report. No one seems queasy about handling them.

Karen Composano has even brought Blizzard and Daisy home for a weekend visit. With a dog and two cats at home, she kept her bedroom door closed.

"I liked to take them home because it was a new experience," she said. "You can learn a lot from a rat."

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