A splashing success, 'BioEYES' live fish science program to expand in the Berkshires

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NORTH ADAMS — "Ugh, they stink!" That was third-grader Leah Decker's reaction to opening up a Petri dish of zebrafish embryos during a live biology lesson at Brayton Elementary School last week.

Yes, sometimes science smells. It also lives, breathes, moves and captivates.

Though not as quickly as zebrafish, the BioEYES program has been developing steadily within classrooms in Berkshire County over the past eight years. The program, created at the University of Pennsylvania, has been adapted through a partnership with Williams College to align with Massachusetts science standards and be implemented at the third-grade level.

Each year Williams College biologist Martha Marvin enlists a team of Williams College students during their Winter Study session to help bring the labs, all the equipment and the live zebrafish into classrooms for a week-long study at Brayton, Williamstown and Lanesborough elementary schools. Elementary students partner the live zebrafish in tanks to mate, then examine the various stages of development of the eggs that are laid.

This outreach program is coordinated through the college's Center for Learning in Action by Director of Elementary Outreach Jennifer Swoap. She said that after a successful local teacher training held at the county-wide educator Professional Development Day back in November, "we plan to work with teachers at Taconic High School, Morningside Elementary, Williams Elementary, Hancock School, Morris Elementary and Pownal Elementary to bring BioEYES to their elementary students."

Asked if they thought expanding the program to other third-grade classrooms is a good idea, Brayton third-graders Ainsley Russell and Haley Chapman both enthusiastically shook their heads "yes" in endorsement.

"It's a great education about animal life," said Chapman.

"It's fun because you get to watch [the zebrafish] grow," Russell said.

"And if someone asks you about zebrafish, you can tell them all about them because you learned it," Decker said.

Their teacher, Jaana Mutka, said she enjoys welcoming the program back to her classroom year after year. "The more and more we do it, the more fluid the process becomes. And every year, there's a new class that's just as excited about it as the year before," she said.

Williams College school outreach coordinator, Renee Schiek, said she's looking forward to crafting a new iteration of BioEYES that can be taught in a shorter time frame but still deliver the same impact.

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"With this program, you start with eggs and by Friday they can see the larvae hearts beating and blood flowing," she said.

"It's a great way of learning with the students," Mutka said. "And it comes with very capable Williams students who are great role models."

Williams students Abraham Park, Jessie Hem and Juliana Ramirez helped facilitate the BioEYES program last week in Mutka's classroom. All three said they wished they had had a program like this when they were younger.

Hem gave herself as a living example of how early exposure to an engaging science program can have impact for a lifetime. "I had a fifth-grade teacher that did a lot of hands-on science experiments in our class. He was awesome. I'm still friends with kids from that class and quite a few of us are still involved in math and science and engineering fields."

In their words ...

During last week's BioEYES lab at Brayton Elementary, Williams College Professor Martha Marvin fielded dozens of questions from third-graders. Here's a sample of what they said:

Q: "How many zebrafish does Dr. Marvin have in her research lab at Williams?"

A: Dr. Marvin has 70 tanks with around 20 zebrafish per tank for a total of 1,400 zebrafish.

Q: "Where do female zebrafish eggs come from?"

A: The same place they poop from, also known as the cloaca. Dr. Marvin asked the students if they knew what other vertebrates have a cloaca and one student in Jaana Mutka's class answered correctly: "Chickens!"

Q: "Do zebrafish sleep?"

A: Yes. All vertebrates sleep.


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