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Opening students' eyes to the wonders of science

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13 February 2012

Zebrafish: the stars of the show
Zebrafish: the stars of the show

An experiment in breeding and raising zebrafish is getting Victorian school children hooked on science. 

More than 600 Victorian students have already taken part in the week-long BioEYES Australia program, adapted from the successful US version by staff at Monash University's Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI), which regularly uses zebrafish for research.

During the week, University educators introduce students to scientific method as they breed and raise zebrafish, observing the fish's development under the microscope. As well as taking responsibility for their own fish, students must formulate hypotheses, record their observations and draw conclusions from their data.

Michael Spiegel of ARMI said the program was an ideal teaching tool.

"Firstly, it is truly exciting for students to watch the transparent zebrafish embryos grow from single cells to free-swimming larvae. They see the heart palpitating, red blood cells flowing through the vascular system and pigment cells peppering the fish body. The students get excited about science and begin to see research as a possible future," Mr Spiegel said.

"Secondly, BioEYES teaches students to think critically, to formulate a hypothesis and then question their assumptions about what they are seeing. Thirdly, we find it levels the playing field between students performing at different levels academically."

Dr Sharon Flecknoe of Monash University's School of Biomedical Science is the program's main teacher.

"BioEYES builds momentum each day, with students witnessing embryonic development with their very own eyes.  The squeals of delight and declarations of how 'cool', 'wicked' or 'awesome' the program is continue for the entire week and build a contagious atmosphere in the classroom," Dr Flecknoe said.

"But beneath all the excitement and chatter, it is obvious that a deeper learning is taking place.  Students begin to make links between what they are seeing under the mircroscope and what they already know of in real life.

"After just two days of the program, eight-year-old students are naming the structures of the embryo and its developmental stages, and using scientific language as if it was second nature."

The popularity of BioEYES is growing rapidly with up to 20 more Victorian schools expected to take part in 2012 and several interstate schools expressing interest. Former Federal Minister for Health and Ageing, Dr Kay Patterson is the program's patron and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research has provided funding.

BioEYES has recently received the Business Working with Education Foundation’s Science and Maths award, which will provide a comprehensive range of resources and expert advice to assist the program to expand.

"We would like to see this program become national," Mr Spiegel said.

"We have feedback from teachers about how well it fits with the new national curriculum, and, importantly, it really motivates students towards science, which is declining in popularity in Australia."