Biology Lab

Spider Scientists Teach Local Middle Schoolers

June 14, 2023

Higher Achievement scholars visit campus for a special zebrafish lab

“You’re a natural! . . . You did it!”

Encouraging words echoed through the lab as middle school students used pipettes for the first time and transferred tiny zebrafish to a plate.

The students were visiting campus from Higher Achievement, a Richmond nonprofit that supports middle school scholars, and working with Dr. Colleen Carpenter-Swanson’s Drugs & Genetics class on an experiment using zebrafish to find new medicine for epilepsy.

“They did an incredible job and I was so proud watching them patiently and enthusiastically guide the middle schoolers through all the different lab activities,” said Carpenter-Swanson, assistant professor in biology and Coston family fellow in molecular biology, who specializes in zebrafish modeling.

Seventy percent of human genes are found in zebrafish, so the tiny, aquatic animals are an important part of scientific research, including in the field of epilepsy.

Carpenter-Swanson’s students first introduced the zebrafish and critical information for the lab to the middle school scholars through videos.

“We get used to talking about concepts in class, but when we did the videos, we had to explain everything,” said Joseph Coyle, ’23.

Chloe Bailey, learning coordinator at Higher Achievement’s Henderson Middle School program, screened the videos for her scholars, and “loved how information wasn’t dumbed down, but accessible.”

When the field trip day arrived, the middle school scholars were ready and excited. Their shuttle, made possible by a course support grant from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, departed from Henderson Middle School and arrived outside UR’s Gottwald Science Center.

“Students came that were genuinely interested in science,” Bailey said. “I want my students to have as many opportunities for exposure as they can.”

The middle school scholars entered the biology lab, put on lab coats, and were paired up with UR scientists who guided them through a series of activities, including collecting zebrafish embryos and viewing them under a microscope, treating zebrafish to test the effects of potential medicines, and tracking zebrafish behavior and seizures.

“They were asking a lot of questions, which we weren’t expecting,” said Anna Liu, ’23.

“Everybody understands the science so much more because they had to explain the concepts again during the lab,” said Sophia Jackson, ’23, a teaching assistant who supported the community-based learning class. “Dr. Carpenter-Swanson makes science accessible to everyone and ignites a passion for science in so many.”

After the lab, the middle schoolers toured the zebrafish facility where they were able to ask more questions. “This is what school is supposed to feel like,” Bailey said.

Carpenter-Swanson plans to teach Drugs & Genetics with a community-based learning component again next year to once again provide her students an enriching and fun opportunity to be teachers for a day.