BioEYES aims to get students excited about science

On a recent Friday morning, a class of fifth-graders at Coldstream Park Elementary were not so much attentive as enthralled. Some students oohed and aaahed over a microscope where an anesthetized zebrafish larva lay, its heart visibly beating through its transparent body. Others hunkered over petri dishes, murmuring and pointing. At one table, a serious boy named Jamaal Boozer gently removed debris from a dish with a pipette, careful to avoid the fish larvae that floated there. “We’re cleaning the dish now, taking out the bacteria,” he said. Saquoia Matthews, a petite girl with long braids, watched with concern. “If you go too fast, you can suck ’em up,” she said, pointing to the larvae.

If the students were more captivated by their schoolwork than one might expect, it was because this was no ordinary class. It was the last day of a week-long program called Project BioEYES, an outreach effort of the Carnegie Institution for Science. The mission of the nonprofit program, in Baltimore since 2007, is to foster enthusiasm for science in elementary, middle, and high school kids. In Baltimore City, schools with large populations of poor and minority children are largely given priority, and the program is free for the schools that participate. The curriculum varies according to the age of the students: In high school, the fish are used to teach genetics; in lower grades, students learn about everything from ecological habitats to the difference between gills and lungs. No matter their level, over the course of a week the students mate zebrafish, collect the eggs, observe the developing embryos, make hypotheses, and eventually get to see the thrilling pulse of a live zebrafish heart. If Devorah Harper’s fifth-grade class is any measure, fostering enthusiasm in the midst of all that hands-on hubbub isn’t a problem.

BioEYES—an organization with affiliates thus far in Baltimore; Philadelphia; South Bend, Ind.; and Melbourne, Australia—is the brainchild of a scientist named Steven Farber. Farber uses zebrafish in his research of how cells absorb fats and nutrients; the transparency of the small tropical fish makes them ideal for visually observing such processes. Farber’s interest in working with kids began with a Take Your Child to Work Day back in 2000, when his lab was at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. “Someone had the bright idea, ‘Let’s take them to Farber’s lab—it’s like the aquarium,’” he says. He set up observation stations for the visiting children. “There was an evaluation afterward and guess which visit the kids liked the most?”

After that, the tours came thick and fast; Farber was soon overwhelmed. He hired a science educator named Jamie Shuda to help develop BioEYES, and in 2002, the Philadelphia program was born. After Farber moved his lab to Baltimore several years ago, he launched the program here. BioEYES has since taught more than 4,500 students in the city (plus a large number in surrounding counties). During the 2009-’10 school year, BioEYES visited 34 city schools.

Proponents say it provides something most schools don’t have the resources to mimic. “The kids need to be excited about science,” says Susie Artes, local outreach coordinator for the program and a BioEYES teacher. “We can provide them with those live organisms that they can see inside of and work with for a week. They raise them and become very invested in them.”

The program also gives educators an opportunity to spot “diamonds in the rough,” kids with a gift for science who might otherwise go unnoticed, Farber says. Such children can then be steered toward programs like the Ingenuity Project, a local accelerated math and science curriculum for middle and high schoolers. In fact, some students who’ve participated in BioEYES have gone on to apply to magnet science programs and report that they did so because of BioEYES, Farber says.

Every class that participates takes a pre and post test, measuring gains in scientific knowledge and changing attitudes about science. “We always have a positive increase in both sides of the test,” Artes says. Farber hopes to conduct more comprehensive studies in the future to test whether BioEYES has a long-term impact on science scores. “We’ve anecdotally heard that that occurs,” he says, “mostly because kids get motivated about science.”

At Coldstream Park Elementary, at least, the fish proved to be pretty motivating. On the last day of BioEYES, Artes told the students that the larvae they had raised would be fully grown and ready to have babies of their own in another three months. A boy in a blue plaid shirt named Shayne McCray raised his hand. “So that’d be like in March,” he said. “Can you come back and show us the babies that they had?”

It can be challenging to create that kind of excitement in older kids, but even the least interested students often come around. “I did have one high school boy who was just too cool for school,” Artes says. “I said, ‘You have to come look at this under the microscope,’ the heartbeat and such. And he says ‘Do I have to?’ I was really lucky because sitting on the opposite side of the desk was a foundation grantmaker watching us to decide if we could apply again.

“And the boy comes up and he looks in the microscope and goes, ‘Oh snap!’ He got so excited,” Artes continues. “And at the end of the class [the funder] says, ‘You guys can come back.’”

While the Carnegie Institution provides many resources for Baltimore’s BioEYES project, the program operates on a year-to-year basis with the support of numerous organizations, including the Abell Foundation. For the 2010-’11 fiscal year, Farber and his team are still about $70,000 off budget. “We have grants out and we should be hearing about them soon,” Farber says. “But it’s just a nerve-racking time of year.”

But Farber says that when funders see for themselves how BioEYES works in a classroom, they’re usually convinced. Grantmakers and children alike respond to the “engaging, hands-on content,” he says. “We cover curriculum concepts that [the kids] should know. But the great thing is that we cover it in a way that they don’t feel like they’re learning. They’re just having fun.”

Teachers who bring BioEYES into their classrooms also receive a good deal of support. They must go through an orientation prior to the week-long program, and over the course of two or three years they work to become “master teachers.” At that point, they can teach the program themselves, using materials provided by BioEYES. “That’s how we can make this sustainable,” Artes says. “As you get master teachers, you can add new schools.”

Farber hopes to expand the program, including introducing new modules, perhaps with other organisms. But for now he is focused on keeping BioEYES financially afloat. His sales pitch is simple. “Is it really rocket science here?” he asks. “It’s not. Instead of communicating, ‘Memorize the steps of glycolosis,’ I am communicating the excitement as to why I get up and go to work every day.” ■

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