WILLIAMSTOWN — Over the course of three weeks, third-grade science classes in three local schools have been able to witness an underwater circle of life from the comfort of their classrooms.
For eight years now, through the Winter Study program at Williams College, faculty and students have brought a hands-on biology program called BioEYES into area schools, adapted from a program at the University of Pennsylvania.
The nationally adapted program, which uses live zebrafish as a teaching tool, is now celebrating its 15th school year, and has reached some 10,000 students in K-12 schools over the years. It's made headlines in local publications and broadcasts, and even in The New York Times.
Zebrafish make the perfect models for studying vertebrates, heredity and neuroscience because they breed quickly, and their offspring develop from a single-cell embryo to an embryo with a functioning nervous system in less than 24 hours. About 70 percent of the genetic traits of zebrafish are shared with the human genome.
The Williams Winter Study course is organized and taught by Jennifer Swoap, a former third-grade teacher and director of elementary outreach at the Center for Learning in Action at Williams College; Renee Schiek, the center's Lanesborough Elementary School liaison, and Martha Marvin, lecturer in neuroscience. Because Winter Study is an elective program, the college students who participate come from all different majors and levels of experience with elementary school classrooms.
Swoap said the goal of the Williams Winter Study BioEYES program is twofold: to be able to offer a science lab experience to local children without major costs to schools, and to expose college students to the local community by tasking them to become teachers for a week.
"Impacting attitudes towards science is the real win of BioEYES," said Swoap. "Science is exciting, evidence based, and fun especially when done with third graders and live fish."
This month, the Williams BioEYES team visited Williamstown Elementary School, Lanesborough Elementary School, and this week is visiting Brayton Elementary School in North Adams.
Prior to visiting the third graders, Swoap guides the Williams students through the process of creating and implementing lesson plans, preparing them to to field the younger students' questions and lab needs.
The college students are then tasked with leading a week-long unit of study, teaching the elementary students how to breed zebrafish; examine the characteristics of the fish, their eggs and the subsequent hatchlings under a microscope; and discuss and document the life cycle, development, genetic traits and the habitat qualities they observe.
While the Winter Study program is currently at capacity for visiting schools, Swoap says that the program may expand to the greater Berkshire area in coming years.
"We hope to expand BioEYES to more schools in Berkshire County through teacher training at the Berkshire Compact Professional Development Day in November," Swoap said.
She said interested teachers will be able to learn more about the BioEYES program and how they can implement it at their schools. The college would continue to support the program for interested schools by supplying zebrafish, microscopes, equipment, and journals.
To learn more and watch a video on the program, visit https://learning-in-action.williams.edu/courses-teaching/winter-study/bioeyes.