June 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW3

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Gold Rush: Exploring an Alternative 4-H Livestock Experience

Gold Rush, a new 4-H program involving rearing and showing goldfish, was conducted as an alternative to traditional, large animal livestock programs. A field day at the beginning of the project provided learning stations on the care and maintenance of goldfish and aquariums. Children reared goldfish for 6 months prior to showing their favorite fish at the district 4-H event. Learned skills were judged by the condition of the fish, written test result, project record book, and interview with the participant. Seventy percent of participants who showed fish wanted to continue or advance in the program.

Andrew M. Lazur
Aquaculture Extension Specialist
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
Cambridge, Maryland

Deborah B. Pouder
Coordinator of Research Programs and Services
University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory
Ruskin, Florida

Monica L. Brinkley
County Extension Director
University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service
Bristol, Florida

Elaine Shook
Program Leader
University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service
Tallahassee, Florida

Yolanda Goode
4-H Agent
University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service
Quincy, Florida

Heather Kent
4-H Agent
University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service
Marianna, Florida


Caring for an animal provides children with an abundance of life skills, including responsibility, commitment, pride, and self-confidence (Diem & Devitt, 2003; Ward, 1996), while teaching topics in mathematics, biology, nutrition, and economics (Wingenbach, Gartin, & Lawrence, 2000). The success and impact of 4-H livestock programming with traditional species of cattle, hogs, and sheep are well established (Gamon & Dehegedus-Hetzel, 1994). However, such activities often require large housing infrastructures that may prevent certain children, especially in urban areas, from participating.

Raising aquarium fish may involve a wider audience, including urban children, while providing analogous learning opportunities. The objective of the pilot program described here was to raise goldfish in aquaria to enhance life skills and subject understanding, as well as to provide the opportunity for peer and community recognition through an area judging similar to other livestock shows.

Program activities involved fund raising to cover part of the equipment costs; an educational field day on the fundamentals of raising fish; care of fish for 6 months; a judged show, test, and interview to evaluate skills gained; and a survey to gauge future interest.


Agents from five northwestern Florida counties recruited 29 4-H children with interest in participating in the pilot program. Pet supply companies provided donations of aquaria and many of the supplies. Children were required to raise one quarter of the costs (~$20) to demonstrate their commitment and to develop local support.

Program Initiation

The first event of the program was a field day in which children and parents participated in two 1.5-hour learning stations on topics in goldfish biology, aquaria setup, water quality, and nutrition to provide them with the necessary fish care skills.

The goldfish biology session included information on the history and evolution of goldfish varieties; basic anatomy; and show-quality features, including color, body shape, and finnage. A demonstration of aquarium setup and maintenance included instruction in:

  • Ideal location in the home,
  • Aquarium preparation, and
  • Regular aquaria care.

The nutrition and water quality station addressed:

  • Fish growth requirements, immune system function, and color development;

  • Feeding frequency;

  • Feed quantity;

  • Water chemistry parameters (oxygen, ammonia, nitrite, pH and temperature) and interactions;

  • Water chemistry testing;

  • Water sources and necessary treatments;

  • Impact of feeding on water quality; and

  • Corrective measures if water quality is not optimal.

An accompanying program booklet, Gold Rush, provided a step-by-step guide to each of these basic care requirements. A project record book provided participants with data sheets to record water quality, feeding behavior, photos, and a short experience summary. At the end of the field day, children received a 10-gallon aquarium, filter, aerator, gravel, thermometer, and water test kits. Participants then had 2 weeks to set up their aquariums and condition the water prior to fish delivery.

At Home Fish Care

Agents scheduled a pickup day, and each participant received four juvenile fantail goldfish along with guidelines for acclimating fish to their aquarium water. Children cared for the goldfish over a 6-month period, during which the fish matured from a greenish color juvenile to the characteristic gold or orange color adult with fantail fins (Goldfish Society of America, 1996). During the growing period and prior to the spring show event, participants fed fish, checked water quality regularly, performed periodic water changes, and recorded all maintenance activities and observations.

Judging Event

In late spring, the children participated in the annual district 4-H event to display their fish and aquarium creativity. Participants selected their best fish for judging in four categories: fish appearance (particularly visual health and condition of fish), fish and aquarium care knowledge as determined by a written test, diligence in record keeping, and reasoning and personal communication as evaluated during a one-on-one interview.

Junior and senior level participants received awards for best fish, best presentation, participant enthusiasm, and overall show champion. A category for the most creative aquarium allowed participants to demonstrate their creativity in choosing and decorating a container for displaying their fish.

Results and Discussion

Of the 29 program participants, 26 attended the field day activity, and 13 exhibited their fish in the district event. Attention in record keeping varied, with 12 children keeping detailed records. Record book scores ranged from 34% to 86%, and test scores ranged from 51% to 88%. The five most common project summary statements were:

  1. Enjoyed the fish and learning how to care for them,

  2. Enjoyed the program and like the fish, but it was more responsibility than anticipated,

  3. Enjoyed watching the fish eat and grow,

  4. Maintaining the water quality is hard work,

  5. Interested in fish eating habits and individual fish growth.

In response to questions on interest in future programs, nine of the 13 children who attended the district event stated that they wanted to continue caring for their fish and continue the program. Four of the nine were interested in a more advanced program. Two children stated that following the program's recommended water quality monitoring and maintenance was too much work.

The relatively strong positive feedback and interest level by the participants suggested that the pilot program was worthy of continuation and potential expansion. Many variations of the program are possible, including growing other fish species; adjusting the culture period; modifying or expanding the awards categories; providing more challenging fish culture systems for advanced students, such as spawning fish; and integrating other aquaria species such as live plants and invertebrates.

Methods to attract more participants might include expanding advertising of the program in newsletters and Web sites, developing a statewide competition, and emphasizing the benefits of program to parents and the opportunities for a relatively low cost 4-H interaction experience with their children. A possible way to increase the number of participants who kept thorough records of their fishes' progress or aquarium conditions, might be placing more emphasis on its importance during the field day activity and including examples of how knowing how recent water quality values equate to feeding activity or fish health. In addition, it may be beneficial to develop varying degrees of record keeping matching participant age groups.

Key elements for a successful 4-H fish program include: 1) access to aquaculture or fisheries biologist personnel who can provide both facilities for the field day event and technical support on basic fish culture and aquarium management; 2) local pet suppliers willing to provide necessary supplies including discounts for educational programs; 3) allowing adequate time to advertise the program and involving the community to maximize participation; and 4) creative individuals who develop the award categories and serve as judges.


Designed as a pilot program to evaluate and provide alternative learning and development of animal husbandry skills and responsibility, Gold Rush demonstrated many attributes of a successful 4-H program: relatively low cost ($75-100 depending on aquarium decorations), adaptability to most children and homes, exposure to a broad range of educational subjects and personal skills, and enjoyable competition.

Children showed genuine interest in learning about and caring for the fish. The show event was a positive motivator, and the level of commitment as gauged by maintenance and record keeping was acceptable for 70% of the participants. The basic aquaria and fish care knowledge requirements and the educational materials developed for the program provides opportunities for relative simple adoption of program concept.


The authors would like to recognize the following companies that donated products and provided support for this project: All-Glass Aquarium; Tetra Second Nature; Aquatic Eco-Systems, Inc.; Suwanee Laboratories, Inc.; Central Pet, Inc.; and Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association. Thanks to the participants and their parents, judges, extension staff; to B.J. Allen, Roy Yanong, Scott Graves, Carlton Adams, and Randall Kent for their assistance in making this program a success; and to Erica Goldman for her editorial suggestions.


Diem, K.G., & Devitt, A. (2003). Shifting the focus of 4-H record-keeping from competition and subject matter to youth development and life skills. Journal of Extension [On-line] 41(6). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2003december/iw1.shtml

Gamon, J.A., & Dehegedus-Hetzel, O.D. (1994). Swine project skill development. Journal of Extension [On-line] 32(1). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/1994june/rb5.html

Goldfish Society of America. (1996). The Official guide to goldfish. Neptune, N.J. T.T.H. Publications, Inc.

Ward, C.K. (1996). Life skill development related to participation in 4-H animal science projects. Journal of Extension [On-line], 34(2). Available at:

Wingenbach, G.J., Gartin, S.A., & Lawrence, L.D. (2000). Assessing the aquaculture curricula in the northeastern region. Journal of Agricultural Education, 41:2-10.