Using Zebrafish to Spark Student Interest in Science

BioEYES is a K-12 science education program that caught our attention with its use of classroom microscopes to visualize its primary teaching tool, zebrafish. We were further impressed to learn this organization has served over 155,000 students in thirteen global locations. ZEISS had recently donated a ZEISS Stemi 305 stereo microscope to the Philadelphia, USA, location.

BioEYES is a week-long lab designed to align with state standards and grade specific curricula. Topics discussed include embryo development, genetics, microscopes, animal models, and the scientific process. It also offers classroom teachers co-teaching with an experienced outreach educator in addition to a professional development session. This is all free for city public and charter schools.

We spoke with one of their outreach educators, Tracy Nelson.

BioEYES student using classroom microscope.

A BioEYES student using a ZEISS Stemi 305 classroom stereo microscope

Please introduce yourself and how you came to work with BioEYES.

Tracy Nelson, Outreach Educator, BioEYES, USA

Tracy Nelson, BioEYES Outreach Educator, Philadelphia, USA

My name is Tracy Nelson and I have been an Outreach Educator for BioEYES, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA, since 2011. Prior to this job I taught 5th grade and had the BioEYES program come to my classroom. It was a great experience and it got me thinking that if I were to ever leave my position, then a job with BioEYES would be exactly what I would want to do. It combines my science and teaching background perfectly. When BioEYES had an opening, I jumped at the chance to apply!

How did BioEYES get started?

BioEYES was created 20 years ago when Dr. Steve Farber, a zebrafish scientist, saw how excited young kids got when he brought fish into his son’s classroom.

He teamed up with Dr. Jamie Shuda who lent her experience as an educator by developing lesson plans, assessments, and professional development content around the zebrafish. Together they co-founded BioEYES.

Tell me about BioEYES current activities.

BioEYES has four levels: Nano (lower elementary), Micro (upper elementary), Intermediate (middle school), and Advanced (high school). All levels emphasize microscope use and thinking like a scientist, but the elementary grades focus more on comparing the development of a fish to a human while the middle and upper grades focus quite a bit on Mendelian genetics, embryonic development, and the importance of model organisms to scientific research. 

In addition, we have an optional 2nd week-long lab for middle and high school students. It is our temperature lab called “Fish Dynamics”. Due to feedback from classroom teachers about their students needing more practice making and reading graphs, we designed “Fish Dynamics” to focus particularly on graphing skills as well as experimental design. Students raise zebrafish embryos at three different temperatures to see how temperature affects their development. 

How does BioEYES use microscopes in the classroom?

Microscopy is at the core of the BioEYES program. Microscopes are needed for days 2-5 of the lab which is when students observe the zebrafish embryos growing and hatching into free swimming larvae. Because zebrafish embryos are transparent, the students can see an incredible amount of detail and change over time with the help of a good microscope. In the hatched larva, a microscope even allows the students to see a beating heart and blood flow. The microscopes are often the favorite part of the experience, as reported in student feedback!  

Examples of what students see through their classroom microscopes during a BioEYES course. From left to right: Zebrafish embryos 10-12 hours post-fertilization visualized with darkfield stereo microscopy; A mixture of wildtype and albino zebrafish embryos 48 hours post-fertilization visualized with brightfield stereo microscopy; Zebrafish larva displaying the characteristic dominant trait of dark pigmentation visualized with brightfield stereo microscopy. All images acquired with ZEISS Stemi 305 stereo microscope.

Where do you see BioEYES going next?

BioEYES is a popular program that is always in demand. We expect to keep serving the teachers and students in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and our other respective areas. Our newly developed virtual content will keep us going when virtual learning is the best or only option. We will also continue to support the expansion of the program to new locations. And finally, we expect to expand our partnerships with research faculty in support of their federal grants. These projects often result in developing cutting-edge new science curriculum for use in local K-12 schools in the U.S.

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