For third graders, 4-H course is all it’s cracked up to be

UNL extension associate, Marty Cruickshank demonstrates egg candling to Tenton Purdie, a third-grader at McPhee Elementary School in Lincoln, Neb.

LINCOLN, Neb. – Third-graders in Kathy Kottich’s class at St. John’s School in Lincoln study typical third-grade subjects like math and reading, but embryology rules the roost in this class.

The 33 students recently completed the 4-H Embryology course, which allows them to take care of eggs and the chicks inside them while learning about aspects of embryonic stages.

“It’s the highlight of their third-grade year,” Kottich said.

The course has been brought to third-graders throughout Lancaster County for more than 30 years by University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Lancaster County. This school year, nearly 3,900 children in 165 classrooms in 52 public and parochial schools are participating.

“It’s all hands-on and they love it,” said Marty Cruickshank, extension associate.

Embryology is part of the core curriculum for Lincoln Public Schools. The curriculum includes discussion on how life is started and how embryos are formed.

The unit starts with Cruickshank arranging the delivery of the donated eggs from a hatchery in Spencer, Iowa. Cruickshank schedules the classes, which run in three four-week sessions between January and May.

Extension delivers 12 unhatched eggs to each classroom. The students are responsible for caring for the eggs during the 21-day incubation process, which requires that the eggs stay warm in an incubator and be turned three times a day, Cruickshank said. The children also must make sure enough water is kept in the incubator to keep the humidity level up.

During the process, the children “candle” the eggs, in which they hold a light to the egg and can see a silhouette of the chick inside.

After the chicks hatch, they are kept in the incubator for one day then usually are transferred to a box until Cruickshank picks them up a couple of days later.

Kottich has participated in the 4-H program for about 12 years and is amazed how much her students learn. They learn difficult embryonic terminology like albumin (protein substance in egg whites) and chalaza (strands of egg white that anchor the yolk in place in the center).

“They soak up so much,” she said. “They just love it. There’s such an excitement when they candle the eggs.”

This year, the children even got to see one of the eggs hatch, she said.

The worst part of the unit for the children is when the chicks are picked up, Cruickshank and Kottich said. After picking them up, Cruickshank gives them to local farmers so they can live out their lives as egg layers.

The children hate to see them go because they have grown attached to the chicks, naming them and even painting their toenails.

When Cruickshank arrives to get the chicks, “I am the most hated person in town,” she jokes.

Cruickshank and fellow extension co-workers Soni Cochran and Vicki Jedlicka work together on the 4-H embryology Web site, which features an “egg cam” that shows chicks being hatched. The site,, has received national and international attention, she said.