WILLIAMSTOWN -- At 9:30 a.m. students in the fourth grade at Williamstown Elementary School collected plastic tanks filled with water that had been waiting overnight. Each tank contained a male and a female zebrafish, (with names like Alice and Roberto, and Yin and Yang), which had hopefully mated and produced eggs. The spellbound students spent several minutes peering into the tanks, looking for signs of new life.
They were studying the tiny, striped fish as part of BioEYES, a supplementary science curriculum developed at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. The weeklong course at WES and another at Greylock Elementary in North Adams the week before were coordinated by Martha Marvin, lecturer in neuroscience at Williams College, and Jennifer Swoap, Williams College Elementary Outreach Coordinator.
The courses were taught by a group of eight Williams College students as part of their Winter Study program.
"This is a first for me," said Marvin, who studies zebrafish embryology with her students at Williams, looking at birth defects of the heart. "The way we work the program is to engage Williams students to actually do a lot of the classroom teaching. I train them and then they go into the classrooms, and I’m there to back them up," she said.
BioEYES was started by Steven Farber, a scientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and developed for widespread use with the help of Jamie Shuda, a professional educator, in 2002. The program’s goals are to supply schools with additional resources and training that will improve students’ understanding of biological concepts, while fostering an enthusiasm for science.
Marvin and a colleague at Williams, Lara Hutson (who was also working with zebrafish), knew Farber, and wanted to bring the program to students in North County, where "there’s not as much opportunity for them to do hands-on science, either in the younger grades or the older grades, as there might be in a big city," Marvin said.
Zebrafish are ideal for introducing students to the lifecycle because they develop so quickly. "We bring in the adult fish and we pair a male and a female, leave them overnight in an incubator in the classroom and the kids get to see whether or not they had embryos Š and then watch the eggs develop for the rest of the week. So by the end of the week they have swimming fish larvae that are moving around independently."
In addition to making daily observations and graphing changes in the development of the embryos, students also write letters or stories relating to their experiences with the zebrafish, adding an interdisciplinary dimension to the program.
Although BioEYES follows a general curriculum, teachers still have plenty of leeway to do things their own way, Marvin said. How information is presented, in what order, and what analogies are drawn between zebrafish and other organisms, is all up to the teachers, which helps keep things interesting in the classroom.
One of the central goals of the program is to challenge the stereotypes surrounding scientists, which can discourage young people from pursuing careers in science-related fields. Achieving that goal, Marvin said, is done partly by "having interested and engaged people come in and work individually with the kids, but also seeing how many women are involved in the program, and letting the kids know that they too can become scientists, because they are acting as scientists during the week."
At around 10 a.m. the students gathered in front of microscopes to examine embryos that Marvin had prepared in petri dishes beforehand.
Students and teachers alike approached the exercises with the curiosity and excitement of encountering something miraculous. It was reminder that science - more than just being a method of investigating the world - is about the joy of discovery.
A basic understanding of scientific concepts goes a long way in a world where science influences nearly everything around us. "I think it’s really important to understand that the program not only has benefits for the kids who might want to go into science," Marvin said, "but also just for anyone who’s going to be a citizen. Everybody should know a little about science and how science is done in order to be a more responsible citizen."
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