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Students Are Inspired by Science, Thanks to Class Zebra Fish


Students observe zebra fish at Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. DAVID SCHMELICK AND DEIRDRE HAMMER/JHU
Students observe zebra fish at Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. DAVID SCHMELICK AND DEIRDRE HAMMER/JHU

Can an aquarium full of zebra fish help instill scientific zeal in elementary classrooms? Newly published findings on the K-12 BioEYES science program suggests that it can.

Now, to be clear, the zebra fish don't instruct the children, but the program does go well beyond the mere inspiration of a classroom aquarium. BioEYES, a partnership between the Carnegie Institution for Science and Johns Hopkins University, centers around hands-on lessons in public school classrooms on basic scientific principles, animal development and genetics — all with live zebra fish as the focal point. The fish make excellent test subjects (for both students and professional researchers) due to their clear embryos and larvae, swift maturation and inexpensive care.

Steven Farber, biologist with the Carnegie Institution for Science, and Jamie Shuda, director of life science outreach at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, began collaboration on an educational zebra fish program in 2002. In the subsequent 14 years, the resulting BioEYES program has reached some 100,000 students in Philadelphia; Baltimore; South Bend, Indiana; and Melbourne, Australia. But just how well has the program performed at reaching young minds?

The BioEYES team has released a five-year study of the initiative based on teacher and student questionnaires given before and after each weeklong BioEYES experiment. The findings, to be published in the journal PLOS Biology, revealed positive gains in learning across all grade levels. Elementary school students improved their knowledge of scientific concepts covered in the program by 48 percent, while middle and high school students' scores rose 27 percent, with significant gains in the understanding of genetics and stem cells.

The BioEYES program also improved attitudes about science. Specifically, students at all grade levels expressed that the experiments gave them a taste of what it's like to be a scientist, boosting the relatability of scientific researchers and professions. This, the authors point out, is no minor achievement, as it helps to erode limiting stereotypes of science as a distant realm of stoic middle-aged men who have no fun.