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Could zebrafish be the new science education recruiters?

Students participating in a weeklong activity involving zebrafish demonstrated substantial gains.

Studying a zebrafish might be the key to increasing students’ science knowledge and attitudes toward science education–at least, that’s what a five-year evaluation of 20,000 K-12 students indicates.

Students taking part in the Project BioEYES program were tested before and after the one-week program and demonstrated significant positive gains in learning in the post-test. Of eight knowledge questions, elementary students demonstrated significant positive gains on seven. Middle school students demonstrated significant positive gains on 8 of 9 knowledge questions.

The program uses live zebrafish to teach students about basic scientific principles, animal development and genetics. The zebrafish embryo is clear, making it ideal for observations.
As of spring 2016, 100,000 students and 1,400 teachers in six states and two countries have participated in the week-long program.

During the week-long BioEYES experiment, students take on the role of scientists in a student-centered approach, a key strategy that has been shown to increase learning, researchers noted.

(Next page: How the experiment changed students’ views on science)

In this experiment, inner-city students investigate the inheritance of skin color. In five days, they collect zebrafish embryos and watch them transform from a single cell to a free-swimming larva with a visibly beating heart and a distinct pigmentation pattern.

Elementary students learn about habitats, human and fish anatomy, DNA, and cells. Middle school students identify the phenotypes of their offspring and and high school students identify the genotypes of the parents (high school).

Across all grade levels, BioEYES increased students’ ability to imagine themselves as scientists. The largest effect on attitudes occurred at the elementary school level–six out of 11 statements showed significant positive changes. Among all grade levels, the strongest attitude shift was in the statement, “I know what it’s like to be a scientist.”

Even more encouraging than gains in students’ science knowledge are improvements in students’ attitudes toward practicing science, researchers said.

“We expected the students to increase their understanding of the concepts they learned, but what is most promising is the positive increases in their attitudes towards the practice of science,” said first author Jamie Shuda, EdD, director of Outreach and Education at Penn’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Based on the data, the authors suggest that “a nonprofit outreach program like BioEYES can change [students’] attitudes about science and scientists in traditional classrooms and in a way likely to promote future STEM learning.”

Working with live animals likely plays a large role in this positive development, they added, because it increases engagement and the level of involvement with the curriculum.

BioEYES is a joint effort between the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Additional centers are located at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Notre Dame, and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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Laura Ascione

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