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A Zest for inquiry

August 2012

  • Sharon Flecknoe & Michael Spiegel

What makes the sky blue? How do trees grow? Why can birds fly? Where do babies come from?

These questions are familiar to parents. A constant onslaught of queries of “how” and “why” are common in any household and predicate the curiosity and wonderment inherent in children. As children grow their understanding of the world around them develops, and the questions become more frequent and perhaps more difficult for the average parent to answer. At times it appears that the curiosity of children far outweighs the knowledge and, certainly, the curiosity of the adult.

Children are naturally inquisitive. They have an intrinsic desire to discover what the world is made of and how it works. Whether they realise it or not, they are skilled practitioners in the art of science; running backyard experiments and tests to satisfy their curiosity and subconscious hypotheses. 

Recently, a friend of mine retold the story of a somewhat worrisome ad-hoc home science experiment her children performed. Entering her kitchen for an innocuous cuppa, she found her son’s back covered in white foam. Perplexed and bamboozled, she turned to see her eight-year-old daughter kitted out with a can of oven cleaner. Through the fury that followed, her daughter managed to blurt out “the instructions said do not let it come in contact with skin… I wanted to see what would happen if it did!” Sometimes a full body rash is worth the pursuit of knowledge…

As adults, our sense of wonderment certainly abates, and many of us might question how our children come up with these seemingly bizarre ideas. Yet children continue to enjoy investigation and observation, construction and deconstruction; indeed toy manufacturers rely upon it. Magnifying glasses serve for hours of amusement, bug catchers and worm farms have been creepy favourites for decades, and what parent hasn’t contemplated filing for bankruptcy on the back of a seemingly unending Lego spree? A stroll down the toy aisle will find the shelves packed with microscopes and other replicas of scientific and building equipment.

However, while it is clear that children have a natural tendency to embrace science, this enjoyment is not obvious in the Australian classroom of today.

A number of studies have now demonstrated decreased engagement, performance and enrolment in science subjects. This is particularly true in Australian secondary schools, where the number of students electing to do Year 11 and 12 Biology, Chemistry and Physics have decreased by 31 per cent, 22 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. In addition, the Australian public has been shown to lack even the basics of scientific understanding. Dr Cathy Foley, past president of the Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, was disappointed to find that “30 percent of Australians think dinosaurs and humans were alive at the same time”. 

This is concerning, particularly for a country that prides itself on scientific advances and one which will become more and more reliant on innovation technology as we inevitably move away from a diminishing export-focused resource economy and towards the new knowledge economy of the future.  

Is it that our children lose their zest for inquiry? Will future generations of our society struggle to make sense of the technological savvy world around them and, perhaps more concerning, will our future society be unable to contribute to global innovations in crucial fields such as energy, health and technology?

Science is not all about dry facts and content. To the contrary, science is the process of asking questions, executing a series of tests or experiments, looking at a problem in multiple dimensions that hopefully allow one to formulate an answer. Whether performed in high tech laboratories, or in our everyday lives, the methodology underlying scientific procedure requires an ability to question, observe, analyse and conclude. Such skills are essential for a society to be able to question the validity of outrageous claims, to contribute to important ethical debates and to make educated and informed decisions as individuals and society as a whole. Being scientifically literate is not about being a scientist but rather about being an informed citizen.

Why do many students start school as inquisitive youngsters but graduate as young adults without an interest in, or a desire to pursue, science? While there is no easy answer it is clear that typical classroom science does not capture student imagination.

The Australian Science Curriculum encourages teachers to incorporate concrete, hands-on activities within their science programs. One such program is BioEYES Australia.

BioEYES is an innovative, hands-on approach to teaching school-aged children about developmental biology, stem cells and regeneration through the use of zebrafish. Students study the lifespan and development of zebrafish anatomy, habitat and genetics. Working in small groups, students are provided adult zebrafish, Danio rerio, which they have to care for and mate. Over the course of a week, students then find themselves in a position they never would have dreamed of – adoptive parents to up to 300 transparent fish embryos. Initially the embryos are no more than a ball of cells, but by the end of the week students have had a unique opportunity to watch their embryos become free-swimming larvae. During the embryogenesis, students witness the very first movements, heart beat, and the formation of intricate structures such as spinal chord, veins and arteries carrying red blood cells and pigment cells. One experienced teacher exclaimed, “This is the coolest thing I have ever done at school!” She is not alone in her review. Student reaction is just as positive and demonstrates how students embrace the ideas of being scientists for a week. One student declared, “The experiment was really fun and taught me a lot, and hopefully there will be more experiments like these in the future”. 

BioEYES was initially developed in the US by Dr Jamie Shuda and Dr. Steven Farber from the University of Pennsylvania, and has enjoyed success there, having been delivered to over 50,000 students in the US. Owing to the huge success that the program experienced, alongside the identification of Australia’s growing need for quality science programs, BioEYES Australia was first implemented in September of 2010 and has since then reached about 2,000 Australian primary and secondary students through initial support from the Commonwealth Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research’s TechNyou program and the Business Working with Education (BWE)  Foundation as well as Monash University.

Organised by the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) in collaboration with the School of Biomedical Sciences at Monash University, teachers and students are also introduced to cutting-edge research in the exciting, emerging fields of regenerative medicine and biomedical science. ARMI is a globally-oriented research organisation committed to revolutionary discoveries and therapeutic strategies that lead to restoring health and normal function, repairing damaged tissues and regenerating the ageing body. Regenerative medicine is a fast-growing and exciting field of research that seeks to repair, replace, restore and regenerate tissues and organs damaged by age, injury, genetic and degenerative conditions. It represents a revolution in human health with the potential to reverse tissue damage, repair traumatic injuries and improve the health of an ageing population. Both teachers and students benefit from exposure to real-life scientists currently working on novel research that could one day lead to therapies to help people recover from neurological injuries, limb degeneration and amputation and even ageing – not that our students are worried about that. 

BioEYES teaches life science skills while exciting children about the thrill of scientific discovery. Students are encouraged to develop their critical thinking skills, learn to use zebrafish as an innovative research model, perform collaborative experiments with classmates locally and overseas and study anatomy, circulation, respiration, genetics and habitat. BioEYES aims to capture the inherent enthusiasm and excitement that students have for science while opening their minds to possible and fulfilling futures in this field. 

The first thing one notices in a BioEYES classroom is the buzz in the air. Every student, irrespective of learning styles, physical or intellectual abilities or social background is mesmerised and fully engaged. The program has captured the attention of legally blind students, individuals with fine motor difficulties, students with English as a second language, typically disengaged and “difficult” students. One such student floored his teachers when he excitedly declared, “We’re learning something, which I don’t usually say”.  

And while we understand that this is just one program, we believe this has the potential to change some student’s lives forever. As Dr. Shuda clearly says, “The students tend to bond with their fish; they never forget their BioEYES experiment. Many expert scientists and Nobel Prize winners attribute their decision to embark on a career in science to just one singular experience in school. While we may not be trying to create a society of Nobel Prize winners, we do hope that programs such as this can reignite the enthusiasm that students have for science and keep their inquisitive minds active long enough for them to realise the true worth of science in our community.

After all, we want to stay young forever, don’t we?


Dr. Sharon Flecknoe is Early Year Bioscience Coordinator, School of Biomedical Sciences, Monash University and Michael Spiegel is Head, Strategic Development, the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute.




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