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Bringing science to life in the classroom

student with microscope

This spring, first graders in Denton ISD were able to delve beyond the textbook and observe science up close using microscopes to observe fish developing from egg to embryo to larva. Aaron Roberts, professor of biological sciences at UNT and co-principal investigator with the RECOVER Consortium, worked with Melanie McGary, a first grade teacher at Newton Rayzor Elementary, to take research from his lab into classrooms at the school, where students learned about life cycles and oil spill science. 

“The great thing about some of the fish we have in the lab is that the eggs are transparent,” says Roberts. “When we get them, it’s just a few cells. The heart starts beating in just a few days. Then the eyes develop. You can see the yolk sac next to the heart.”

Roberts set up a microscope in the classroom for students to observe the eggs over a couple of weeks. They learned about how to record their observations and communicate what they discovered.

The outreach was part of a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), which allocates funds committed by BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. GoMRI investigates the effects of oil spills on the environment and public health. UNT is one of four universities in the RECOVER Consortium that is funded by GoMRI.

RECOVER, which stands for Relationships of Effects of Cardiac Outcomes in fish for Validation of Ecological Risk, is studying the effects of crude oil on two species of fish that are economically and environmentally important in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2015, UNT researchers in the consortium have received $2.7 million to study the detrimental effects on mahi-mahi and red drum. Roberts and his colleagues at UNT — Warren Burggren, professor of developmental physiology; Dane Crossley, associate professor of physiology; Ed Mager, assistant professor of aquatic toxicology and fish physiology — and their research groups have studied how fish adapted to survive following the spill. The grant has recently been renewed. RECOVER2 will receive funding for an additional two years to continue the work.

“RECOVER conducts robust outreach programs,” says Roberts. “Most funding agencies want outreach programs, but GoMRI really does make it happen. I actually think the outreach efforts were a major part of our project being renewed.”

Based on the success of the lessons at Newton Rayzor, RECOVER’s outreach coordinator is developing packets for teachers so the program can be implemented at other schools. Roberts and his team plan to return in the fall to Newton Rayzor to work with another group of students.

“Getting hands on with science is a great way for the kids to learn about the natural world and why protecting these resources is so important,” Roberts says.

Educational outreach efforts of the consortium also include the RECOVER Virtual Lab, an app for classrooms that allows students to simulate experiments conducted by RECOVER researchers. Students can choose the fish, the levels of contamination and other variables and test the various outcomes in computer-modeled simulations. The app includes a video by Jason Magnuson explaining the Deepwater Horizon spill and animations created by Emma Barnes, both graduate students in Roberts’ lab. It also provides detailed lesson plans for teachers. Ally Karaczynski, RECOVER outreach coordinator, attends educational conferences to help get the materials into classrooms.

“Giving students the opportunity to learn about oil spill science and research at a young age can better aid our environment in the future in the event of a possible oil spill. Education is the first step in being able to make better, more informed decisions,” Karaczynski says. “With our outreach and the RECOVER virtual lab, we are able to bring our research into the hands of students and teachers.”