This teacher gave kids fish instead of lectures, and it's turning them into scientists.

For one week each year, teacher Zach Carey turns his eighth-grade classroom into a working biology lab.

Students at Commodore John Rogers School in Baltimore, Maryland, walk into class on a Monday and find their room transformed. Two high-powered microscopes sit at the back of the class, and each group of desks is topped with a transparent tank occupied by two small, delicate fish: one male, one female.

For the next week, these kids will be scientists, and the fish are going to help them.


A third-grader at another nearby Baltimore school, Thomas Jefferson Elementary. Image from David Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University.

This week of hands-on science is thanks to a group called BioEYES, a nonprofit that uses zebrafish to give kids real experience as scientists.

Zebrafish are small, striped, guppy-like fish and are often used in science experiments. The idea behind BioEYES is to have the two adult fish breed, then let the kids work as scientists and watch the embryos develop.

Adult zebrafish. Image from David Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University.

When you tell kids they're going to be breeding actual live fish in a middle-school classroom, some seem amazed, but others are pretty skeptical, says Carey. So you can imagine the excitement on that Monday morning — excitement Carey quickly transforms into rapt attention.

"The kids are super engaged," Carey says. "They want to know what's going on."

The students' engagement is important because science education is in trouble.

While America was known for its science and technology throughout the 20th century, today the nation is falling behind in terms of producing new scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There have been many reports over the last few decades calling for major changes in how we're teaching our kids.

BioEYES is out to help fill that gap by giving kids the opportunity to do hands-on science. Furthermore, while the program could technically be used anywhere, they've made it free for schools where kids are low-income and struggling with science.

The program started back in 2002 with just two just people, Steven Farber and Jamie Shuda.

Back then, Farber was just setting up his own professional zebrafish lab when he got a surprise visit from a "take your kids to work day" group. Farber welcomed the kids, showing them around and letting them look at tiny, developing zebrafish under a microscope.

Photo from BioEYES, used with permission.

The kids were enchanted, and Farber found himself hosting more of these visits. Excited, but overwhelmed, Farber brought on Shuda, a former third-grade teacher and educator to help turn it into a program.

As they were talking, Farber and Shuda discovered they were both frustrated with the stereotypical image of a scientist as some old dude in a lab coat — something a lot of middle-school kids could not picture in their future. So they decided that, instead of just bringing a scientist into the classroom, their program would turn kids into the scientists themselves.

"Giving people the opportunity to do something they wouldn't normally do really opens their eyes," says Shuda. Stereotypes break down. Doors open.

Today, the BioEYES program is in more than 100 schools in the U.S. and reaches kids from second grade through high school.

Photo from BioEYES, used with permission.

The program can be tailored for each class. Carey's kids, for instance, are learning about genetics.

In Carey's class, the kids get two parent fish — one with the zebrafish species' typical silver and grey stripes and the other a colorless albino. Their question is what color will their offspring be.

For five days, the kids make hypotheses, observe the babies develop, and care for the growing embryos as if they were in a working laboratory. They can use the microscopes to watch the eggs grow from single cell to embryo to larvae. By the end of the week, the larvae are big enough that the kids can see their coloration — and find out if their hypotheses were correct.

"What makes this a really fantastic model for teaching genetics is that the kids are actually able to, with a living organism, answer a hypothesis," Carey says. He thinks a lot of science teaching is purely didactic — look at this cell, label these organs, memorize these names. But BioEYES feels like an investigation in a real laboratory.

Photo from BioEYES, used with permission.

The first few years Carey did this, the program was actually run by one of the BioEYES outreach educators. Today, though, he's taken the program and made it his own. He's one of what BioEYES calls their model teachers. They use the BioEYES model and materials but tailor it to better fit their own schedules and classrooms.

"They're the key to our success," Shuda said.

The program seems to be working and has actually launched a few science careers.

Students at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. Image from David Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer/Johns Hopkins University.

A recent paper found that BioEYES improved test scores compared to pre-fish levels while also helping kids understand what being a scientist was actually like. Some past students have even gone on to pursue STEM careers themselves.

Fabliha Khurshan, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Pennsylvania, says she was always interested in medicine, but the program helped her understand what being in a lab was really like. Kareema Dixon, a 19-year-old sophomore engineering major at Drexel University, says, "Before BioEYES, I wanted to be a lawyer."

Both credit the program with pushing them toward science.

It's cool to see a program like this that both teaches and inspires kids.

"It’s something that really leaves a lasting mark," Carey says.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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