Click here to print this page.

Akron Global Polymer Academy Professional Development Modules

Miracle Fish

Grades: 5-8
Author: Jon Valasek and Sandy Van Natta


Module Description

This module leads participants through the process of designing an experiment so that they can direct their students to do the same. First, participants are given a miracle fish and asked to make observations. Then, through a series of steps, they develop procedures to investigate the behavior of the fish. After discussing the components of an experiment, participants are lead through a second exploration, involving polymer spikes, where they make observations, collect data, complete graphs, and draw conclusions. As a final part of this module, participants discuss teaching by inquiry and develop a plan to implement what they have learned in their classrooms.



Estimated cost per person is $0.25

Miracle Fish: One per person. Order from by typing in the search block: "plastic fortune fish". The order number is SP-39/761 currently (8/05) $7.95 a gross.

Growing Spikes: One per group. Order from as "water gel spikes, GB-3" currently (8/05) 10 spikes for $2.50. or call JRM Chemical at 1-800-962-4010 and ask where you can buy Soil Moist clear plant spikes. JRM supplies stores like ACE Hardware but does not retail their products.

Plastic Bags: One per group. Closable sandwich bags that can hold a 250 mL of water.

Pickling or Kosher Salt: Enough to supply each group with one tablespoon of salt. Use pickling or kosher salt because it does not contain the additives of normal table salt and will not cloud the water.

Distilled Water or Normal Tap Water: as desired. 250 mL per group.

Paper Towels

Electronic or Hand Balances: Enough to ensure timely massing of the spikes.

Metric Rulers: One per group.

Heat Source: Heating pad, window sill, lab heater, or chemical heat pack. The number needed depends on the size of the group.

Small Boxes: to isolate fish in darkness.

Oil: Mineral oil works well, use a small amount as necessary.


Notes to the Professional Development Provider (PPD) or facilitator will accompany each step in parenthesis when appropriate.


This stage focuses the participant's attention on a topic and poses a problem for the participant to explore in the next phase of the learning cycle. The facilitator pre-assesses the participants and informs them about where they are heading.

  1. Tell participants to take the fish out of the plastic sleeve and place it on the palm of one hand.
  2. Tell them to observe the fish for at least 1 minute and record their observations. (Encourage your participants to use the senses of sight, touch, smell and hearing when making observations. Taste should not be used in this activity. Participants can also be asked to sort their observations according to their own criteria.)
  3. Ask participants to share some of their observations with the group as a whole.
  4. Since the participants have just observed a phenomenon, ask them to form hypotheses to explain their observations with regard to the motion of the fish and share these with the group. (You may receive such hypotheses as: moisture, heat or oil from the hand causes the fish to curl. Participants may also suggest the amount of light, the uneven surface of the hand, or air currents in the room cause the motion of the fish.)

Assessment: Assessment is an on-going process throughout the learning cycle. The participant should have responded orally in the Engage stage as well as throughout the cycle. Check that observations (not inferences) are listed and participants pose the problem. (An observation would relate to the color, size, shape, or behavior of the fish. An inference might would try to explain why the fish is behaving as it does.)


In this phase, the participant becomes the center of the action as they collect data to use to solve a problem.

  1. Ask the group how they can discover which hypothesis supports their observations. (What you are really asking the participants to do here is design experiments to test each hypothesis individually)
  2. Ask the group which factor or variable they wish to test or change. (They may suggest moisture, heat, oil etc.) If more than one variable is suggested, divide the teachers into groups and assign one of the suggested variables to each group to test.)
  3. If the participants change this variable, ask them what they will want to observe in response to their change. (Participants should observe what happens to the fish.)
  4. Based on the responses to steps 2 and 3 ask participants in each group to write a testable question that will allow them to set up an experiment to test their hypothesis. (Note: this language may be new to the participants, so lead them & give an example or two.) They can be given the prompt: "How does ________ affect ______? (An example of a testable question for this experiment would be: how does moisture affect the motion of the fish?" Other examples of testable questions - not related to this experiment - might be: How does the height of an inclined plane affect the distance a toy car travels?, or How does amount of salt affect the boiling point of water? )
  5. Ask the participants what they would want to keep the same throughout the experiment so that any changes in the fish can be accredited to the variable they changed. (Some things participants might list would be:

(Depending on what each group is changing, all factors listed above should be kept constant except for their tested variable)

  1. Ask participants to write a simple procedure to test their question. (A sample procedure is given below - this is for the PPD' s information alone. Any reasonable procedure should be accepted from participants.
  2. Ask the groups to share their procedures. If all procedures seem reasonable, allow the groups to actually conduct their experiments, make observations, and record their observations.
  3. Have all groups share their observations then ask the group as a whole to draw a conclusion based on their observations. (Most likely the participants will find that the addition of moisture causes the fish to curl.)

Assessment: In the Exploration phase, the lesson provider can note whether or not the participant was following procedures, collecting and recording data, and working in a logical form.


In this phase, participants use the data they have collected to solve the problem and report what they did. At this time, the lesson provider can introduce new vocabulary to label what the participants have already figured out.

  1. Ask the participants to explain what they learned during this activity. (How to write a question, how to identify variables, how to write a procedure, etc.)
  2. Call the participant's attention to the fact that they had to change one variable and then observe the response of the fish during the course of their experiment. The variable changed by the participant is known as the independent variable. The dependent variable was what they observed or measured in response to that change. (The PPD should emphasize this terminology to all teachers by first, asking for other examples of independent and dependent variables - time vs speed, days vs growth, etc. and then having participants express to each other a clear way for their students to remember these definitions. One way a participant may choose to have the student remember is that the dependent variable depends on what change they make.)
  3. There were certain factors that were kept the same in each experiment. These factors are known as controls.
  4. Ask the participants how an experiment differs from an activity. (If you had simply told your participants in the beginning why the fish curled, this would have been conducted as an activity. If a phenomenon falls short of the participant generating a testable question, then the experience of the participant stays at the activity level. Experiments are based upon testable questions drawn from a hypothesis. Numerical or observational data is collected and conclusions are drawn that support that data.)

Assessment: During the explanation phase, the participant can be evaluated by being asked questions that assess the participant's comprehension of new vocabulary and concepts. Some hypothetical experiments can be proposed to check teachers' understanding of independent & dependent variables as well as controls. For example: ask participants to picture a simple wind-up toy. Ask them to think about what factors might affect the distance the toy can travel. The most obvious factor would be the number of winds given to the toy. Other factors might include the type of surface the toy is traveling upon and the angle of the surface the toy is traveling upon. If participants chose to test the number of winds, this becomes the independent variable. The distance the toy travels would be the dependent variable. Participants would want to control such variables as the type and angle of the surface traveled upon, who does the winding, and where the toy is placed for beginning and end measurements.


The participant can be given new information that extends what they have been learning in earlier parts of the cycle. The lesson provider can pose problems that students solve by applying what they have learned. Continue with a discussion of teaching by inquiry. Use information on the AGPA website to facilitate this discussion. This is also the place where participants should discuss implementation of this lesson in their classrooms. Use the lesson plan template and give time for the participants to complete this document and plan for teaching the lesson later.

Design an experiment that includes numerical data.

Note: Depending on your resources, select either to mass the spikes with balances or measure the length of the spikes with metric rulers.

  1. Give each group a growing spike and explain that it is made of a chemical that absorbs water (see Explanation of the science for further details). Elaborate on superabsorbers found in diapers and gardening.
  2. Ask, "What factors affect water absorption?"(Possibly participants will conclude that the amount of water in direct contact with the spike will affect absorption, as well as temperature and others.)
  3. Ask, "Would different amounts of water be absorbed by the spikes in different types of water?" (Accept answers). "How would impurities in the water affect its absorption?" Have groups share answers.
  4. Ask each member of the group to identify independent variables that they would change to test water absorption. Have each group share their conclusions.
  5. Have each member of the group identify a characteristic of the spike they could measure. Have each group share their conclusions. Remember you are limited to balances or metric rulers selected at the beginning of this part.
  6. Ask each participant to identify variables that need to be controlled or kept constant in order to accurately determine water absorption of the spike. (Participants' responses might include: amount of water, temperature, light, size of container, amount of air, room location, type of water, etc.)
  7. State, "Now that you have explored the things you could change, measure, or keep the same, write a testable question that would test the spike's water absorption capability."
  8. Have groups share their questions. This is where you have to tactfully direct the selected outcome. Because you have prepared different salt solutions, you might say, "We could test many different variables, but because of time and preparation I chose us to test various salt solutions. However, in your classrooms you might have students explore all the possibilities you mentioned."
  9. After it is agreed to test water absorption by varying the salt content in water, have the teachers write a procedure to test the question. ( A sample procedure follows. Don't divulge this to the teachers.)
    1. Label four plastic sealable bags A,B,C, and D.
    2. In bag A put 250 mL of water.
    3. In bag B put 250 mL of water and I tsp (5 mL) of salt.
    4. In bag C put 250 mL of water and 2 tsp (10 mL) of salt.
    5. In bag D put 250 mL of water and 3 tsp (15 mL) of salt.
    6. Measure the length (or mass) of a spike and place it in a bag. Seal the bag. Record the measurement and contents of the bag.
    7. Repeat for each of the bags.
    8. Record initial observations.
    9. In 24 hours remove each spike and measure mass or length. Record results and observatons.
    10. Graph results. ( A bar graph or percentage graph would be appropriate)
    11. Write conclusions.
  10. Ask, "What do we do with the data?" Have groups discuss numerical presentation and analysis methods. Then request groups share their discussions with all the teachers.

(Scientists are concerned with an accurate and understandable way to present data derived from an experiment. Representing data in the form of a graph helps scientists examine results, reflect on findings, and communicate with others. Graphs communicate information quickly and identify trends and relationships that may not appear in a table. One of the best graphs for the data in this experiment is a bar graph that shows percent growth. To calculate percent growth, divide final length or mass, that was recorded at 24 hours, by initial length and multiply by 100%. ) Another way of calculating percent growth would be to take the final length (or mass) - the initial length (or mass) divided by the initial length (or mass) times 100%.

Have participants prepare a data table. Above is a representative set of data and below a graph of the data.

Spike Growth Graph

  1. Lead the group through a discussion on graphing principles. (A graph should have a title, X and Y axis labeled and appropriate units. Each axis must be divided into equal increments but the scale of each axis can be different. The Y axis contains the dependent variable with measured units and the X axis contains the independent variable which could have no numerical units or no measured units. A bar graph is represented above.)
  2. Have the group identify the independent variable (teaspoons of salt) and the dependent variable (percent growth)
  3. Have groups draw a graph and show to the participants.
  4. Pose the question, "Now that we have graphed the data what conclusions can we draw from the data?" Accept all inputs. (The pattern from the sample data is not obvious but the salt should slow the growth of the spikes. The pattern is more reliable with mass.)
  5. From the data it seems that adding 1 teaspoon of salt increases the absorption of water by the spike. Ask, "Is any of the data out of the ordinary?" Accept the answer that 1 teaspoon is bucking the trend. Ask, "Why do you think this is so?" Promote a discussion that offers reasons for this result. (In science labs we promote this thinking to include identifying unexpected results. Possible explanations include: error in measuring salt, interaction of the salt with the polymer, irregular spike construction, etc.
  6. Conclusions should answer the question posed at the beginning of the experiment.

Assessment: During the final Elaboration phase, the application of the participant's knowledge to the new "problem" can be considered the "test". Have teachers discuss how they would use the steps they just learned in their own classrooms.


Teaching with inquiry can be defined as giving: "students ample opportunities to apply the reasoning and procedural skills of scientists while learning the principles and concepts of science along the way." Typically teachers use lab activities as a way to reinforce the concepts already presented in class. By changing an activity into an experiment, a student becomes more actively involved in the learning process as he/she forms a hypothesis, writes a testable question and designs his/her own procedure. Conducting an experiment is one way of involving the student in the inquiry learning process. However, most students, and many teachers, are not prepared to design their own experiments without some guidance through the basic steps. This activity is designed to aid participants/teachers in turning activities into experiments. Once the participant feels comfortable with this process, he/she can guide his/her own students through the same process and allow them to become more independent and actively involved in their own learning processes.

Science Standards

Content, Technology, and Professional Development:

Science as Inquiry: as a result of activities, in grades 5-8, all students should develop:

Physical Science: as a result of activities, in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of:

Professional Development:

Standard A: Professional development for teachers of science requires learning essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry. Science learning experiences for teachers must:

Standard B: Professional development for teachers of science requires integrating knowledge of science, learning, pedagogy, and students; it also requires applying that knowledge to science teaching. Learning experiences for teachers of science must:

Best Teaching Practices

Time Frame

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Module Lesson Time: 90 minutes to 2 hours


Since the water absorbing spikes need at least 24 hours to "grow", the presenter needs to set up one set of spikes in water and salt water solutions at least 24 hours in advance of your professional development session. These spikes can be used to gather data during your session since the participants' spikes will not have enough time to grow during your session.

  1. 1. If your participants all have access to balances in their classroom, you can mass 4 spikes. If availability of balances is limited, measure the length of the spikes to the nearest 0.1 cm. Massing spikes is preferred to linear measurements.
  2. Place 250 mL (1 cup) of tap water into bag A
  3. Place 250 mL of tap water and 5 mL (1 tsp) of salt into bag B
  4. Place 250 mL of tap water and 10 mL of salt into bag C
  5. Place 250 mL of tap water and 15 mL of salt into bag D
  6. Add a spike to each bag and record the initial mass or length of the spike on the outside of the bag.
  7. Seal the bags and let them sit for at least 24 hours.


No special safety precautions are needed. The "Miracle FishT" can be replaced into its original plastic package and reused. The water absorbing spikes can be placed in the trash. The salt water can be poured down the drain.


Participants can be asked to take a simple activity they already do in their own classes and re-write it as an experiment. Due to limited time in your development session you may want them only to write a testable question and identify independent and dependent variable and controls. Have them write out a procedure and design a data chart if there is time. So that your participants do not have a difficult time coming up with an activity on short notice, you may ask them to bring 1 or 2 ideas of activities they already do in their classes with them to your session. Or, you may suggest an activity to them and ask them to re-write it as an experiment. For example: ask them to design an activity relating to friction and the movement of a toy car down a ramp.

Explanation of Science

Miracle Fish: This module uses miracle fish, which are made from a cellophane polymer that is very water loving or hygroscopic. ("Hygro" means water and "scopic" means to view or find.). When this polymer comes in contact with moisture from sweat glands in your hand it absorbs water on the side in contact with the hand and loses water through evaporation on the side exposed to the air. The moisture moves through tiny spaces in the cellophane by capillary action, similar to water being drawn up on a paper towel. The process of absorbing moisture from the hand and evaporation of moisture into the air causes the miracle fish to curl up. The lightness of the cellophane makes the fish very sensitive to air currents, which adds to the "dancing" effect. Because every person is different, the absorption/evaporation process happens at a different rate depending on the warmth of the hand and the amount of moisture on the palm.

Growing Spikes: Growing spikes are made from another polymer, polyacrylamide, that is classified as a superabsorber. Water diffuses in between the strands of the polyacrylamide causing the polymer to swell and hold water. The spikes may hold over 40 times their weight in tap water. These spikes are the ones used by gardeners to water and fertilize plants and are used in this module. The most familiar superabsorber is sodium polyacrylate, a polymer found in diapers. It can hold hundreds of times its weight in water, but this capacity is diminished when urine or substances containing sodium are in contact with it.


None available for this module.


Writing: Superabsorbers are found in diapers and water absorbing products for plants. They are found in chemical spill kits and even blood coagulation and disposal kits in surgery. They are also found as sealant like mortar used between cement blocks and in fiber optic cables to prevent water entering the cables. Participants may research the use of superabsorbers in products found in daily life.

Math: Participants may want to compute the volume of the spikes before and after absorbing water. They can then compute the % volume change. Line graphs can be used as well as bar or pie graphs.

Lesson Implementation Template

Download Lesson Implementation Template: Word Document or PDF File


When dividing participants into groups, try to be sensitive to gender, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Try to make groups as heterogeneous as possible.


None available for this module.


Sarquis, Mickey and Hogue, Lynn; Science Night Family Fun from A to Z, Terrific Science Press, Miami University Press, Middletown, OH, 2000. pgs. 81 to 90.

Taylor, Beverley, et. al , Teaching Physics with TOYS Easy Guide Edition, Terrific Science Press, Miami University Press, Middletown, Ohio, 2005, pg. 8.