Kids are ‘natural scientists’ with live fish in class

Raising live fish in class helps children and teens learn fundamentals of biology—and improves their attitudes about science.

A study of nearly 20,000 K-12 students, who raised zebrafish from embryos over the course of a week, found that participants at all grade levels showed significant learning gains. They also responded more positively to statements such as “I know what it’s like to be a scientist.”

boy watches fish in class
A third-grader at Baltimore’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle School observes his zebrafish. (Credit: Dave Schmelick, Deirdre Hammer/JHU)

The results, published by the journal PLOS Biology, suggest that an immersive experience with a living creature can be a good strategy to engage young people in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“You see a whole different side of them when they’re learning something that’s real.”

The researchers say that working with live animals—fish that swim, mate, and grow right before their eyes—focuses children’s attention in a way a book lesson can’t.

“The kids can’t wait for a chance to look at their fish; they’re natural scientists,” says Steven A. Farber, a biologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and an adjunct associate professor of biology and education Johns Hopkins University.

‘It doesn’t feel like school’

Farber founded BioEYES in 2002 with study coauthor Jamie R. Shuda, director of life science education at the University of Pennsylvania and adjunct associate professor of education at Johns Hopkins. Intended to reach low-income schools with students primarily from underrepresented minorities, BioEYES is now a partnership between the Carnegie Institution and Johns Hopkins. It has worked with 100,000 students in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other cities.

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Students collect zebrafish embryos and watch them develop from single cells to swimming larvae complete with beating hearts and distinct pigmentation. Elementary students learn about human and fish anatomy, habitats, cells, and DNA. Middle school students identify observable traits of zebrafish offspring; in high school, students learn how scientists determine the genetic makeup of parents by studying their offspring.

By the end of a week, all students are analyzing data and discussing results like real scientists. The study results suggest students are better able to grasp concepts—even complex ones—when they’re delivered through hands-on experience, the authors say.

“They’re so focused on the experiments, it doesn’t feel like school,” Farber says.

‘I know what it’s like to be a scientist’

The authors analyzed the performance of 19,463 students who participated in BioEYES from 2010 to 2015. Before and after the program, students were quizzed and also asked questions assessing their attitudes about science.

After BioEYES, elementary school students improved their knowledge of scientific concepts covered in the program 48 percent, while middle school scores and high school scores rose 27 percent.

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After the program, students were more positive about who scientists are, the importance of science and the popularity of science. The attitudes of elementary students changed the most, with improvement in six of 11 statements.

The statement that generated the most positive change for all of the students was “I know what it’s like to be a scientist.”

“We’re showing that BioEYES allows children to imagine themselves as scientists and that’s really important for us,” Farber says. “We’re changing attitudes and developing a more STEM-literate citizenry.”

BioEYES operates in 104 schools in the United States and 25 in Australia. Classroom teachers train alongside educators from the Carnegie Institution and universities.

At Baltimore’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle, third graders given male and female zebrafish one day this fall were amazed, just 24 hours later, to see embryos form, and thrilled to observe the growing life forms under a microscope.

“You see a whole different side of them when they’re learning something that’s real,” says Kelley Taylor, their teacher. “I have some bright students in here, and they are definitely making the connection that scientists are changing people’s lives.”

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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Source: Futurity