Dec 02, 2015 1:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell

Students around a table


The students in the fifth grade class at Meadowlark Elementary School couldn't hide their disgust when they learned zebrafish larva have their heart outside of their bodies. The students had been studying the small fish for a week as part of the BioEYES science outreach program. During that time, they had watched adult fish mate, embryos develop, and now were observing the microscopic larva swim in their petri dishes. They also, hopefully, were developing an interest in science.

“We would like to excite kids about science early to give them the opportunity to become more invested in their education,” says Judith Neugebauer, PhD, the Program Manager for BioEYES here in Utah. “By giving them a snapshot of what scientists do, we hope to inspire them to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.”

BioEYES presents students with concepts in genetics, cell biology and developmental biology. It does something more important as well – it teaches kids how to pose and answer scientific questions in a fun and safe learning environment. They can see themselves as future scientists because they are acting as scientists now.

In the classroom at Meadowlark, it was easy to see the process at work. Neugebauer asked the class what they think the small black dots on the larvae may be. Some guess gills. Some guess guts. Not one guess is discounted, but students are asked to explain the reasoning behind their guess. Finally, a student posits the dots may be the start of the stripes it will have as an adult. An answer that can be backed up with observable facts is found!

“Teaching science in their classrooms gave me an opportunity to see both how fun teaching science can be and how important hands-on, critical thinking programs are,” says Neugebauer. “Every time I go into the classroom, I am amazed at the perspective the students have on our experiments, and they inspire me to come up with more creative ways to engage their enthusiasm.”

The zebrafish are the central focus of the BioEYES program and were chosen for a very specific reason. “Being vertebrates, they are physiologically and genetically comparable to humans, and are used as a model system to understand human biology,” says Neugebauer.

The zebrafish also have interesting physical characteristics which make observing them easier. “The embryos are transparent, allowing students to witness the development of the animal’s key structures, such as the brain and heart, within the span of the weeklong BioEYES unit,” says Neugebauer. “These tiny fish spark the children’s imagination, and are key to the success that BioEYES has seen in getting kids excited about science.”

Just like the fish, the students involved in BioEYES are chosen for a specific reason. “We reach out to students underrepresented in STEM fields to give them opportunities to explore life science,” says Neugebauer. “Among our goals – in addition to providing quality science education – are closing the achievement gap, and creating equitable access to all students in science fields.”

Libby Mitchell

Libby Mitchell is the Social Media Coordinator for University of Utah Health Care. Follow her on Twitter @UUHCLibby.

zebrafish bioeyes genetics

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