Introduction to ‘ Beyond the Classroom Aquarium ‘ A Project Driven MakerSpace Curriculum

If you are here to gain insight into this curriculum, I would like to fully satisfy your curiosity by presenting overarching aspects of it in the somewhat lengthy description below.

For readers who want to cut straight to the bottom line, the main features of Beyond the Classroom Aquarium are summarized in this paragraph. Participation in this curricular sequence of projects is designed to powerfully instill daily feelings of personal value and meaning into each student’s school day. It is intended to reinforce student feelings of self-worth and personal value as students work together designing, assembling and personally operating a range of ecologically vital aquatic ecosystems in their own classroom. The structured sequence of authentic aquatic ecosystem themed projects in this curriculum feature an ever expanding, cummulative and comprehensive learning space that is unique to each class and represents the best thinking that results when many students work together and “think outside the box” (ie Beyond the Classroom Aqurrium).

The curriculum includes many expensive project components and addresses how teachers, students and communities might obtain the kinds of assistance and support that will allow them to fully complete all projects in this curriculum (and beyond) affordably while doing meaningful work while at the same time having fun AND learning.

The lengthy description provided below is only second best to actually spending time observing students in this ever flowing/bubbling learning space as they work on projects, and take part in a recurring cycle of formative assessment presentations that provide evidence of the knowledge and skill they are developing as they work through each project.

This introduction Includes:

  • An account of how & why I developed this STEM-focused, project-based AND authentic aquatic ecosystem themed curriculum,
  • A link to a post titled: Beyond the Classroom Aquarium – A Non-Fiction Title for STEM Educators that provides additional links to other posts that provide a range of information about the curriculum, author, professional development efforts & the Kindle Direct Publishing eStore book site. And,
  • A basic example/image of the kind of floorplan/”footprint” that a student team might propose in the beginning weeks of a school semester (for a 40 foot wide by 60 foot long classroom space). This image does not include math lab and computer/microcontroller design space – assuming such workspaces are available in other locations within the schoolhouse.

Interested educators may purchase a copy of #BtheCA (Twitter hashtag) at the Kindle/Amazon e-Store link given here. 

Beyond the Classroom Aquarium is a detailed curricular sequence of 14 STEM-Based learning projects that are all uniquely aquatic ecosystem themed. One primary motivation for developing it was to establish a learning format that has the intrinsic power to effectively nurture daily sustainability of a passionate sense of purpose among learners. It was intended to be a comfortable and simultaneously challenging match for students and teachers who like to do “real” stuff; to help all learners celebrate their engagement with authentic learning – every day of the school year. Many educators who maintain their own library of professional literature and learning resources will treasure this curriculum and the wide assortment of learning project descriptions it contains.

It was my vision to use a sequence of project based, STEM-Oriented and aquatic ecosystems themed projects in the curriculum to transform novice students into caring, knowledgeable and competent members of an aquatic ecology staff; possibly capable at the very least, of gaining entry level employment at a public aquarium, public garden, aquaculture facility or nature center. In essence this aquatic ecosystems themed curriculum was designed to systematically immerse students in an interconnected sequence of interdisciplinary projects – to promote academic development and personal growth.

My first “A-Ha moment” leading to development of this curriculum occurred years ago as I was sitting in a colleague’s classroom transfixed by the creatures in the “classroom aquarium,” while reflecting on my evolving career in education. As I observed the behaviors of the fish, snails and plants in the classroom aquarium, I became obsessed by the desire to explore strategies to further promote learner engagement and agency through involvement in processes of designing,  assembling & operating aquatic ecosystems, unique aquatic ecosystem components, and a range of essential ancillary lab-related equipment. My initial steps while embarking on this curricular design adventure involved development of a comprehensive list of never done-experienced-shared aquatic ecosystems related activities and materials. The bulk of this list was completed within days yet, to this day, some 30 years later it continues to expand.

In its earliest incarnations, the Beyond the Classroom Aquarium curricular vision was an extension of my realization that “We” (my students & I) had neither ever (from the ground up) designed, assembled nor operated authentic aquatic ecosystem simulations/models (excepting dioramas & other forms of extremely inexpensive yet seemingly way over-used “make believe” and artificial “let’s pretend” kinds of educational “activities”)!

Further, I realized I did not know of one colleague who had ever guided his/her students through such visionary curricular sequences of ‘Design and Beyond’ processes. We’d never… fabricated components of aquatic ecosystems rather than purchasing “store-bought” ones. We never dreamed of the countless personalized ways that technologies could be woven into day-to-day classroom activities (via aquatic ecosystems).

As the curricular foundations began to gel, I continued to wonder how financially prohibitive (and time consuming) the curriculum might become. What sacrifices might need to be made without eliminating the character of genuineness in each project?  What learning goals/standards might be included? How might all the disparate resources and knowledge I’d need to make this vision a reality be consolidated? AND, I wondered, aside from talking about “poop (from organisms in the systems),” what else might students find engaging in this curricular sequence of aquatic ecosystems themed learning activities?

In my experience, working with thousands of students and observing thousands more, it has often seemed that “Curriculum” has all too often served to promote engagement (for a limited time only) with distant and randomly fragmented sequences of learning activities with, at best, narrowly connected strands of continuity and authenticity. In many educational curricula with which I was familiar I noticed that personal elements of daily purpose and passion were rarely addressed directly.

I pondered these issues through years of direct work with students (and summer camp attendees) and multiple years of participation in aquatic-ecosystems-related professional development workshops as I worked on the framework of my curricular vision.

I designed this curriculum to start off strong, from the first day of school and remain strong until the final day of the year. I also wanted to directly personalize every student’s daily purpose and passion. To make Beyond the Classroom Aquarium as awesome as possible for both students and teachers it was structured to:

  • Involve weeks of essential class and program set-up before the beginning of the school year.
  • Provide a built-in two week beginning of the school year schedule adjustment period without losing project momentum or leaving behind students who enroll late.
  • Emphasize opportunities for real world activity and authentic consequences of participation in learning activities and projects.
  • Reinforce alignment of learning activities and projects with personalized academic standards and individualized development goals; many framed in a competency based framework, particularly in math.
  • Transition from teacher-centered to student-centered processes related to observation, critique and decision-making activities – documenting academic progress – per standards.
  • Place students in aquatic ecosystems work groups with clear access (at the discretion of the lead instructor) to professional support in relation to any aquatic ecosystem component they have been assigned to design & assemble (plumbing, electricity, carpentry, coding, livestock management etc.).
  • Involve each student on each design team in a process for sharing knowledge and system information about their team’s aquatic ecosystem design and operation with classmates on other aquatic ecosystem design teams.
  • Guide student teams to design and assemble unique auxiliary aquatic ecosystem components; including opportunities for coding technologies related to aquatic ecosystems.
  • Guide students to reflect on personal experiences with operational aquatic ecosystems (organisms & equipment systems) in the classroom and design & conduct a related scientific investigation.
  • Guide student teams to update, redesign & repair classroom aquatic ecosystems as may become necessary over time as knowledge grows and ecosystem productivities expand (e.g. broodstock & larval rearing systems).
  • Guide students to explore aquatic ecosystem related careers
  • Guide students to participate in activities to become familiar with local (perhaps only schoolwide), regional, national, and international aquatic ecosystem issues and approaches/polices used to address these issues. Students are guided to explore virtuous and vicious cycles per the work of Gerald G. Marten – The eco-tipping point project and design (and implement) a community service project that approaches a local aquatic ecosystem issue.
  • Student teams formally develop and present an advanced aquatic ecosystem design – for future development
  • Students conduct a full-day final summative assessment conference where project timelines documenting the entire school year and results of scientific investigation are presented.

Friends, colleagues, and family will affirm that my efforts to design a well-crafted and naturally unfolding sequential curriculum of aquatic ecosystems themed learning projects from my earliest brainstorming sessions – became a long-term & painstaking labor of love (and frugality); created by an adventurous aquatic ecosystems minded STEAM/STEM educator (me) for like-minded fellow educators and their students. Issues of frugality were considered from every perspective in view of the idea this curriculum is worth doing. Thus multiple strategies for acquiring material, supplies and appropriate assistance are woven into each project.

Many people witnessed my ongoing efforts to repeatedly tweak and re-tweak the progression of projects – to streamline the curricular flow – in order to formulate a sleek curricular design that would enable educators/students to fully (and enthusiastically) participate in this program’s entire sequence of projects – within a standard school year. This task challenged me deeply. It took twenty-three years of obsessive thought (& a tireless review of resources) related to my educational design to realistically fit my aquatic ecosystem based vision into a full-fledged – yearlong – STEAM-Oriented & project based curriculum it is today. The 347 page book, Beyond the Classroom Aquarium (2014) was the end result of this vision. I divided it into the following sections.

  • Introductory Activities – STEM Connections – Universal Aquatic Ecosystem Parameters
  • Design, Assembly, and Maintenance of Three Primary Systems
  • Design, Assembly, and Maintenance of Auxiliary System Component Projects
  • Opportunities for Research
  • Applications of Aquatic Ecosystem Knowledge & Skills- Service Learning – Beyond the Classroom
  • Summative Assessment: A Beyond the Classroom Aquarium Conference (student run)

I believe fellow educators who use this curriculum find that the exposition of the sequence of learning activities in Beyond the Classroom Aquarium addresses the issues described above while also suggesting ways for them to implement the project sequence in their own settings to best fit their own students, while also infusing each activity with the most recent next generation science, common core, engineering & technology (and beyond) standards.

As stated in CHAPTER I: Your Classroom as an Aquatic Ecosys-STEM Learning Lab: Setting the Stage for STEM and Taking the Plunge – Introductory Considerations “My instructional experience with these projects did not follow the linear path…” outlined in the book. As a public school math/science educator I used the twenty-five plus aquaria that might be found in my classroom (from year to year) to excite learning and educational interaction as best as I could in the context of the high stakes testing environments within which we worked. As I developed this book, my students had opportunities (from one year to another) “to work on a range of activities: from those that may involve the simplest aquatic ecosystems and humblest single-celled organisms, to those that involve highly complex organisms and aquatic ecosystems….” For example, my students participated in the processes of raising clownfish, peppermint shrimp, various strains of unicellular algae and plankton, freshwater fish species and ocean dwelling corals. In aquaponics, they were involved in the processes of raising designing and assembling the aquaponics frame and plumbing the connections between  the various  system components – eventually raising a range of vegetables and maintaining populations of bluegill and perch. Some students came to school early in the morning and others stayed late to perform aquatic ecosystem work.

In Beyond the Classroom Aquarium, Technology, Engineering & Math do not take a “back seat.” Although aquatic ecosystems provide a passionate/engaging theme – opportunities to apply & assess student proficiencies in engineering, design, technology, math, communication, art, & performance of real-world problem analysis & resolution are abundant. Each project description in Beyond the Classroom Aquarium is designed for use as a guide whereby an educator may modify any given project and corresponding assessment strategy to best meet the needs of his/her own students. Some educators select to implement a limited number of Beyond the Classroom Aquarium projects each year. With careful advanced planning, others successfully implement the entire sequence of projects with their classes during a full school year.

On October 5th, 2016 I activated a brief social media fundraising campaign that would have enabled me to share strategies (materials and equipment) for implementing Beyond the Classroom Aquarium learning activities with fellow educators in week long professional development workshops. The campaign was offered through Potential donors were invited to view my Indiegogo crowdfunding site by using the link given here:

Although this fundraising campaign expired without raising its stated financial goal, I believe as strongly in this curricular vision today as ever and still imagine a day when I may be able to take part in seeing it fully implemented and shared with students and peers. I would like to share with my educational peers and eager students what this kind of aquatic ecosystems makerspace looks like. In recent years, I have been donating the plethora of equipment and materials I own to local educators and nature centers. And I remain available to collaborate with like-minded educators.  Finally, I continue to reflect on some of the edgier, more advanced project activities I included near the end of the book and am posting a detailed first “supplement” to more fully elaborate on these projects (one at a time) on the link given here: .

I hope you now have a better understanding of how & why I developed this yearlong project based, STEM-Oriented and aquatic ecosystem themed curricular sequence of authentic learning activities that students love. I also hope you recognize the curriculums contribution to a purposeful and passionate learning environment. Students love becoming informed and experienced designers, co-creators and stewards of authentic aquatic ecosystems – in the classroom and beyond. I believe you can understand why I believe the sequence of Beyond the Classroom Aquarium activities and their comprehensive continuity set this curriculum apart from the many other specialized curricula that have been developed through the years.

If you feel you would like to have a copy of the book but find the cost prohibitive, please contact me. I want to share this curriculum with as many like-minded educators as possible. I will arrange a discount price for you if at all possible. Although the current sale price is somewhat negotiable, it represents my effort to recover expenses I incurred throughout the years as I worked with students and colleagues to complete Beyond the Classroom Aquarium; something you may get a fuller appreciation for while reading and using this book/curriculum. It’s encyclopedic!

Indeed, Beyond the Classroom Aquarium is unique. Probably no two aquatic ecosystem design teams will design and assemble identical systems. Each system reflects the unique combination of skills and understanding of the students in the system design team.  Another feature that makes Beyond the Classroom Aquarium unique is that it is a curriculum written by an educator for other educators; a grassroots effort. It is not the result of a corporate curriculum committee. It is not the product of a major publishing corporation. Indeed, I have successfully used many such curricula throughout my career. As a result, I felt it was important to design Beyond the Classroom Aquarium so that educators who use it would, at the least, meet with success similar to that which results through use of standard corporate publishing house produced curricula while also possibly going beyond them on some dimensions of educational applicability and power.

This link leads to series of posts that provide much more information about the curriculum, project, and author (me). If you click on this link you will be taken to the post containing additional links (mentioned above). They are embedded in the respective text: .

And as promised above, here is an image of a proposed Beyond the Classroom Aquarium floorspace for a 60’x40′ classroom. It is assumed that each classroom footprint will be unique in content, equipment included and scale – size and space allotted to each project/learning space. Additional math lab, project assembly (carpentry space, etc. discussed in the book) and digital sensor technology spaces are not shown here. Some may include space for them in their own floorplan footprint.

  • 4 teacher demo systems: 5’x5′ each
  • 6 Student Lab Tables: 3’x5′ each
  • 2 Brood Stock Larval Rearing Systems: 13’x2.5′
  • Coral Propagation System: 5’x2.5′
  • Aquaponic System: 20’x5′
  • Live Aquatic Foods Culture & Microscope Area: 4’x18′
  • 3 Project Display Areas: 16’x6′, 16’x3′, 3’x4′
  • Teacher Demo Workstation… 4’x14′
  • Smart Board Mounted to Wall: 10’x0.5′

As always, your comments/input about #BtheCA are always welcome. You may also visit this Beyond the Classroom Aquarium Kindle Direct Publishing e-Store link. Interested readers may purchase a copy of #BtheCA at the Kindle/Amazon e-Store link.

Sharing another fun “Beyond-ish” link below:


an inspirational poem by Suzy Sutton about “Reaching Beyond”

8 Responses to “Introduction to ‘ Beyond the Classroom Aquarium ‘ A Project Driven MakerSpace Curriculum”

  1. Eleanor K. Smith January 15, 2019 at 1:21 PM #

    This is great! I am passionate about authentic teaching! I am a retired teacher and just couldn’t walk away from this. I have a book and blog about authentic teaching and am so excited to see what others are doing!


    • Robert Jakus January 15, 2019 at 4:56 PM #

      Thank you for your kind words Eleanor. I just saw a couple of your “authentic” posts earlier today and had to LIKE them!


      • Eleanor K. Smith January 15, 2019 at 11:46 PM #

        How do I “follow” you? I don’t see a “follow” button…


      • Robert Jakus January 16, 2019 at 7:52 AM #

        Hi Eleanor: Your blog is listed as being one of “Beyond the Classroom Aquarium”‘s followers. My admin page also shows that you “like” two of the posrs on this web/blog. I’m grateful for your positive acknowledgement! 🤣 Does this address your question? I will look at the pages to see if I might be able to highlight the follow button.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oscar Hernandez September 28, 2017 at 3:51 PM #

    How do I contact the author?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. petrel41 September 12, 2017 at 4:32 PM #


    I have nominated your blog for the Real Neat Blog Award.

    More about this nomination is at


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