Moonshot initiative aims to put scientists in every Florida classroom

By the end of a 30-minute lesson via Zoom about plant structure, students in Teacher Tabitha Stidham’s third grade classroom at Williston Elementary School (WES) were jumping up and down as they raised their hands with questions.

Those questions were for scientist and teacher Alan Ivory, who was presenting the lesson from Silver Springs State Park in Marion County.

When Ivory first went live, he was overlooking the water from a deck at the park.

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But by the end of his presentation, Ivory had walked inland to show the students several different types of plants and trees. His lecture covered the bald cypress trees growing out of the water, the tall pine trees on solid ground, and more.

Ivory is responsible for implementing the Scientist in Every Florida School program activities in Marion and Levy counties as a K-12 Smallwood Foundation Fellow.

Brian Abramowitz, the K-12 education and outreach coordinator, said Ivory is one of about 500 scientists participating in the program statewide. It is operated under the Thompson Earth Systems Institute (TESI) at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.

The idea started in 2018 when UF President Kent Fuchs called for “moonshot projects,” which are defined as exploratory and ground-breaking projects that address a huge problem.

The goal of the Scientist in Every Florida School (SEFS ) is to create long-term collaborative relationships between teachers and scientists who physically or virtually visit every school in Florida. Those scientists are from Florida State University, University of Miami, UF and other colleges, and some work in science industries.

“Our scientists research air, land, water, and life topics which address climate change,” Abramowitz said, and added that students learning from these programs will be “more scientifically literate” as students, future scientists, citizens and voters.

Currently in Alachua County teachers have been paired with scientists at Howard Bishop and Westwood middle schools, Gainesville high and Santa Fe high, Chiles and Wiles elementary schools, and Brentwood school.

Abramowitz said teachers who want to be paired up with a scientist can fill out a form online and request one.

“They fill out a Google form on the website, tell dates, topics, grade level and number of students and choose between North Florida or South Florida,” Abramowitz said. “Based on the region where they make the request, we assign a match and pair them up with an email introduction.”

The regional approach allows the scientists and teachers to develop long-term relationships. 

Ivory said he stays busy giving lessons each week.

“I have two visits that are every week, without fail,” he said. “One focusing on K-2 standards and one focusing on 3-5 standards.”

They are open to any teacher, Ivory noted, but are promoted directly to Marion and Levy County schools.

“Teachers are also welcome to request specific topics for what their classes are currently working on,” Ivory said, adding that he has 17 visits scheduled this week but usually averages 7 presentations on a typical week.

Ivory said some of the more popular lessons he has given involved his tree frog research project to teach the scientific method, providing soil-testing equipment for students to test the soil composition at their homes, and testing how climate change might affect ocean life.

Mainstreet Daily News sat in Ivory’s plant structure class along with the WES students on Friday.

Ivory introduced terms and concepts and then had a discussion with the students that involved him asking questions and then students asking questions as well.

Stidham said SEFS offers many opportunities for hands-on, visual, and auditory learners.

“They love being able to have questions answered that their teacher would not normally be able to answer or would have to research in order to answer,” she said. “This is our first year using the program and, so far, I have heard nothing but good things about it. Every student and teacher in our school that has used the program has loved it. Alan is so good with the students and is able to explain things in a way that they can understand him.”

According to Abramowitz, scientists statewide completed 598 visits to 245 unique schools last year. They reached 22,748 students in 28 out of 67 counties in Florida as a result.

In Alachua County’s seven participating schools, the program has reached 503 students in four schools. In Levy County, 992 students have learned from a scientist’s presentation.

For more information about SEFS click here

If you are a teacher interested in being paired with a scientist fill out this form.

To follow the SEFS on Facebook click here.

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