Peering through a microscope, 12-year-old Rykeem Manokey counted dozens of fish embryos in the petri dish.
"Normally I'm not that into science," said the seventh-grader at Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School in South Baltimore as he drew models of the embryos he saw. "But I get into this. It's fun."
Children learn better by doing rather than just watching, research shows, and educators hope this program, which involves students breeding and raising zebrafish over a week, will engross them enough to learn something and maybe even develop a lasting fascination with natural science.
The rapidly growing educational program called BioEYES was launched in 2002 by Steven A. Farber, a biologist whose lab at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia had grown into a popular school field trip destination. He grows zebrafish in his work of understanding human diseases.
Farber said kids can't help but focus when you "plunk a fish" in front of them.
"There is something natural in children across the globe," he said. "We are innately curious about the living world around us, and we lose something when we place a screen in between. When kids are getting their hands wet and have the fate of fish embryos in their hands, they are paying attention."
He set out to change the minds of the many students who don't see themselves as scientists, particularly lower-income or minority children living in urban environments.
Farber developed the BioEYES curriculum with Jamie R. Shuda, director of life science education at the University of Pennsylvania and an adjunct associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. They took it to teachers in Philadelphia and pitched it at national science and education events.
BioEYES came to Baltimore in 2007 when Farber moved his lab to the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and partnered with the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
Urban teachers and principals now routinely seek out the program, which has been spreading as fast as organizers can plan and raise funds. (BioEYES costs about $30 per student.) BioEYES sends educators to help in the classroom before preparing local instructors to handle the lessons on their own.
More than 100,000 kids have gone through the program in such cities as South Bend, Ind.; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Melbourne, Australia. Some students participate in subsequent grades, using more advanced curriculums.
A recent study led by Farber suggests the program succeeds in getting gets students excited about science and helping them understand some tough principles about life cycles and genetics in the short term. The study showed the students also retained what they learned.
Farber believes students can stay motivated when individual teachers continue using hands-on styles of teaching. BioEYES offers some other ideas beyond the zebrafish.
Now he wants to see if the one-week program could alter the path of a student's academic or professional career, which he acknowledged could be a heavy lift. Farber will track students for the longer-term affects.
Some recent research from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles found that there has been progress in getting students to pursue science degrees. About a third of freshmen now aspire to so-called STEM majors, those in science, technology, engineering or math. But while once-underrepresented racial minorities come in with the same level of interest as white students, they are substantially less likely to complete the degree within five years.
About 33 percent of white students and 42 percent of Asian-Americans earn the bachelor's degree in STEM, but only 22 percent of Latinos and 18 percent of African-Americans do. Researchers weren't exactly sure why, but Tanya Figueroa, a research analyst at the institute, said more needs to be done to get students to "think and act" like scientists.
Students, beginning in grade school, tend to be more successful when they adopt a "STEM identity, one where they see themselves as a scientist," Figueroa said.
The UCLA institute plans to produce a book of best practices for professors, based on observations from almost a dozen universities more successful at graduating STEM students, she said. One major thing they had in common was they employed active, hands-on styles of teaching — like the BioEYES program but at the college level, Figeuroa said.
All the students came in having read the same books, but the successful universities rearranged classroom space to be more conducive to activities, she said. They performed work as a group, where students could move around easily, bounce ideas off each other and interact.
"With that level of interaction they were not falling asleep and not on Facebook and not paying attention," Figueroa said. "These types of classes are important, especially for first-year students who are easily distracted from their initial goal."
Back at Francis Scott Key, the seventh-grade students spent the first day with adult zebrafish. They matched males and females, which quickly reproduced. Each day they examined petri dishes full of embryos under a microscope, logging the growth of tails, dark eyes and spotting in their workbooks.
Throughout the week they saw hearts beating and blood flowing.
"For them to see things they don't normally see in class and use the microscopes and other things that actual scientists use, they just get really excited," said a Kimberly Chrystal, a science teacher at the school. "This gets them out of their seats."
Along the way they learn about how a living creature grows and passes on traits, said Chrystal, who has been teaching the class since 2010, first with an outreach educator from BioEYES and then by herself.
"It's cool, how life works," said Rodrigo Haskins, one of her students.