Zebrafish spark imagination for science careers in cash-strapped public schools

November 10, 2016

PHILADELPHIA - A five-year evaluation involving nearly 20,000 kindergarten through 12th grade under-resourced public school students shows that taking part in Project BioEYES, with one center based in Philadelphia at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, increases students' science knowledge and positive attitudes about science. Younger students had the greatest attitude changes. The study covered five years and tested students before and after the one-week BioEYES program. The research is published in PLOS Biology.

BioEYES uses live zebrafish to teach basic scientific principles, animal development, and genetics. The zebrafish embryo is clear, making it ideal for observations. As of spring 2016, 100,000 students and 1,400 teachers in six states and two countries have participated in the week-long program. Each BioEYES Center, including programs at Penn, Carnegie Institution, and the University of Utah or Monash University in Australia, is a partnership between local educators, school districts, and researchers.

First author Jamie Shuda, EdD, director of Outreach and Education at Penn's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and senior author Steve Farber, PhD, from the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore, started BioEYES as a grass-roots collaboration between a scientist and teacher. "We share a vision of providing high quality science experiences for all students and building sustainable teacher partnerships," Shuda said. "We expected the students to increase their understanding of the concepts they learned, but what is most promising is the positive increases in their attitudes towards the practice of science."

Over the course of a week, students collect zebrafish embryos and watch them develop from a single cell to a swimming larva, with a beating heart and a distinct pigmentation pattern. Elementary students learn about human and fish anatomy, habitats, cells, and DNA. Middle school students identify the observable traits of their zebrafish offspring, while high school students delve into the ways modern scientists determine the genetic makeup of parents by studying their offspring. At week's end, students analyze these data and discuss their results with their classmates much the way scientists do.

From 2010 to 2015, the team assessed students before and after a week-long experiment. They asked students to answer knowledge-based questions as well as questions about their attitudes toward science and scientific careers. Following a BioEYES class, all grade levels showed significant positive gains in learning. Seven of the eight knowledge questions had significant positive gains for elementary students. At the middle school level, eight of the nine knowledge questions had significant positive gains. For example, students are asked about basic science concepts focused on cell biology, genetics, and how to develop a hypothesis. Some middle school questions that showed the greatest gains involved concepts in genetics, with changes from 72 to 87 percent, depending on the question. For example, students were asked to identify a Punnett Square based on the next generation cross of their offspring. The high school questions with the greatest gains were those identifying characteristics of model organisms in research such as having DNA and providing insight into human health, with a 64 percent change, and a basic understanding of stem cells, with a 56 percent change.

Interestingly, for all grade levels BioEYES increased students' ability to imagine themselves as scientists. The largest effect on attitudes occurred at the elementary school level - six out of eleven statements showed significant positive changes. Among all grade levels, the strongest attitude shift was in the statement, "I know what it's like to be a scientist."

The second-largest attitude change was observed in elementary and high school grades, and the third-largest in middle school, was an increase in agreement with the statement, "Science is becoming more popular than it used to be."
The work of BioEYES, locally and nationally, is supported by many foundations, corporations, and individuals (see S10 Table in the original paper for a comprehensive list of corporate and nonprofit support). The Penn BioEYES program that serves the Philadelphia area is supported by the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Spain, The Brook J. Lenfest Foundation, Children Can Shape the Future, The Scholler Foundation, and The Seybert Foundation.

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

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