When Jamie Shuda embarked on a teaching career almost 15 years ago, she and a local scientist created a public school science program for kids living in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other under-resourced areas, using live, see-through fish. No one had used animals in the classroom like this before. Now, in the spring of 2016, 100,000 students and 1,400 teachers in six states and two countries have participated in this innovative, week-long activity.
The program, called BioEYES, brings science alive for the kids and the educators – they can see the fish’s beating heart and blood flow by the fourth day of development.
Shuda is now director of Life Science Outreach for the Institute for Regenerative Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Sande Yeck, a fourth grade teacher at Solis Cohen Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia and a BioEYES veteran, welcomed Tracy Nelson, a BioEYES facilitator, and several tanks of mating adult zebrafish into her class the week of May 16. The species are ideal for this activity because of their quick development and transparency.
“The fact that BioEYES is reaching their 100,000th student is a testament to how great the program is,” Yeck told Nelson earlier this year.
On Tuesday of that week, Mrs. Yeck’s students were checking the bottom of the mating tanks to count how many eggs had been laid. The almost-30 students collected the eggs and viewed them under the microscope for the first time. The groups wrote observations in their journals and discussed the parts of the embryo and compared its needs to those of a human embryo.
“Zebrafish get to their teens in only four days and become a full adult in about four months because their life span is only two to five years,” said Nelson, comparing zebrafish development to that of a human. She then asked them, “When do you think a human becomes an adult?”
“30! 40! 18! 21!” came the guesses from the class. By relating the science to their everyday lives, Nelson made the entire lesson relevant and fun for the class.
The impact of these types of hands–on, accessible programs reaches way beyond inquisitive fourth graders. Aiming to better equip the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District with creative ways to reach students, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s new community schools initiatives dovetails with the BioEYES program.
All equipment, supplies, and training through BioEYES are free to local Philadelphia schools. The program works directly with teachers and schools to tailor the lessons to best meet each class's needs.
“We are a community hub that provides hands-on curriculum to our neighborhood schools,” Shuda said. “Our recipe for teacher professional development, coupled with co-teaching in the classroom serves as a model for sustainability, but also long-term impact during a teacher’s career. BioEYES is also often the students’ first exposure to live science. Our structure allows for over 3,000 kids a year to have this experience.”
Because of programs like BioEYES augmenting their school day, many students become more engaged in other Penn STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics –programs as they go through the school system, such as science fairs and internships.
“BioEYES is about jump-starting the pipeline, in real-time, in a real classroom with real teachers. We believe that is where it needs to start,” Shuda said. In fact, many BioEYES graduates have gone on to do other internships at Penn and even become Penn undergrads.
Some of Mrs. Yeck’s class may be starting down their own road to a career in research. When asked what was fun and interesting about the lesson that day, the classroom responded with a resounding “Everything!”