Lanesborough fourth-graders learn to look at world through 'BioEYES'


LANESBOROUGH — For the past week, the fourth-grade classrooms of Sean MacDonald and Jenn Szymanski at Lanesborough Elementary School have been transformed into satellite biology laboratories, where kids could study genetics, embryonic development and animal science from the comfort of their own desks and chairs.

The Williams College Center for Learning in Action for six years has donated the staff and supplies to run the "BioEYES" program, developed at the University of Pennsylvania, in local schools. This is the first year the program has been extended to Lanesborough.

BioEYES teaches about the life cycle using live zebrafish, a tropical freshwater member of the minnow family, so named because of its light and dark horizontal stripes. As vertebrates that share about 70 percent of genes with humans, zebrafish are great biological models.

They also breed quickly. So during a week-long BioEYES unit, students can observe clear single-cell embryos develop into a free-swimming larva that will become an adult zebrafish.

"We're just so grateful to Williams so that we could have the materials and their expertise here," Principal Martin McEvoy said.

In addition to the microscopes, the fish and the notebooks, the Williams and community volunteers who have helped facilitate the program also bring inspiration and enlightenment to the students, MacDonald and Szymanski said.

"I think it's really cool to watch them," fourth-grader Emily Dupuis said of the fish. She and her fellow classmates Olivia Filiault, Shane Wade and Damon Pause worked together to care for their two fish, which they named "Tomato" and "Potato," and their offspring.

The kids documented every observation and prediction of embryo development in journals and actively discussed their theories.

MacDonald said the lesson reinforced his previous lessons on the scientific method.

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"I also think it's awesome to be able to have the expertise of people like Dr. Marvin and for our students to see what college students do," he said.

Earlier in the week, Martha Marvin, a professor in neuroscience, brought students Naomi Currimjee and Katie Bennett to help the classes.

Bennett, a self-proclaimed mega fan of biology and genetics, said the students quickly picked up the work, and words like "hypothesis" and "chorion" (an embryonic membrane).

"I really like the exposure our students get to the advanced vocabulary, so they'll know it when they go on to the upper grades," Szymanski said.

"It's fun to introduce them to a high level of genetics," Bennett said. "I also hope that now they'll be excited about asking rigorous questions and testing them in a rigorous way."

Also facilitating BioEYES was Williams student Gabs Ilagan, who did a special monthlong residency at the school to understand how to best assess opportunities for Williams students to work with Lanesborough Elementary curriculum and classrooms.

The Williams College Center for Learning in Action formally forged a partnership with Lanesborough Elementary back in November. That month, the students visited Images Cinema in Williamstown to view "He Named Me Malala" in correlation with a trip offered to Williamstown Elementary School's sixth grade class. Future programs in the works with Lanesborough include field trips to the Williams Observatory, Hopkins Forest and Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.

Retired teacher Diane Fuleihan and her husband, Art, volunteered this week to support the BioEYES project while Renee Schiek served as a liaison between the school and Williams. Both relished the idea of affording more opportunities to a school that may not be able to have the resources otherwise.

"The way I see it, any outside program we can bring into the school with people from the real world, outside people who can share their enthusiasm and expertise is a great thing for our students," Schiek said.

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-4239.


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