Last year, the University of Florida announced it would spend $17 million trying to solve some of society's biggest problems through new approaches. One of the winning "moonshot" proposals aims to put a scientist in every Florida school — at least for a visit once a year.
Through the program, scientists visit classrooms to share their research with students and form relationships with teachers. Palm Beach County is one of five school districts participating in the four-year pilot, which UF leaders hope to expand statewide eventually.
Stephanie Killingsworth left her job teaching science to gifted seventh and eighth graders at Conniston Middle School in West Palm Beach to help oversee the program. Now she visits schools throughout Central and South Florida to help scientists translate their work to what students are learning in class.
"We're really trying to embed the scientific process," Killingsworth said, "and have the kids understand from current research what that actually looks like when it's applied."
Besides Palm Beach, the participating districts are Alachua, which includes Gainesville, where UF is located; Escambia, which is in the Panhandle and includes Pensacola; Lee, which is on the southwest coast and includes Fort Myers; and Seminole, a suburban county just northeast of Orlando.
The program is different depending on the school, Killingsworth said. Sometimes, scientists come into schools to do activities and experiments with students. They might visit to act as role models for students who are interested in careers in science. They might work on a long-term project with a class. Scientists are joining classrooms virtually, as well.
Killingsworth said that, so far, there's anecdotal evidence that bringing scientists into classrooms creates more opportunities for students to engage in experiential learning and improves their grasp of the science concepts they're being tested on.
"When the students have a chance or an opportunity to practice the science and apply it to something that they've heard from a scientist and their research, it translates into the student's achievements, too," Killingsworth said.
She said UF leaders are working on getting approval to do formal surveys of the scientists, teachers and students to validate the effects of the program. For example, the studies would focus on whether students' attitudes about science changed after a visit from a scientist, or if they understood the content better. With positive results, the program could apply for more grant funding to expand.
More than 100 scientists throughout the state are participating in the pilot. Sean Moran, a doctoral candidate at UF studying zoology and paleontology, said the program is helping to change students' minds about what a scientist looks like.
"Students are so used to seeing scientists as old white guys with a big white beard, right?" Moran said. "It gives scientists a different image."
Moran delivered a lesson in paleontology during a recent visit to Roosevelt Middle School in West Palm Beach. Students measured 3-D replicas of real teeth from a megalodon, a massive shark that's been extinct for two million years. UF has one of the few known partial sets of teeth from a single megalodon.
Students plugged the measurements into a formula that was created to predict the length of great white sharks. What they discovered, though, was that each tooth provided a much different estimate for the length of the megalodon — anywhere from 40 to 140 feet. That's actually the point of the lesson: the formula doesn't work for megalodons. The students figured it out the same way scientists did: through trial and error.
Moran's research colleagues at UF are working on developing a new formula for estimating the length of megalodons.
As the lesson wrapped up, the students' regular science teacher reminded them that experiments don't always yield the results they're expecting. But, Robert Fletcher said, they shouldn't give up.
"Science is not always correct. It changes," he said. "Real scientists are using the scientific method every day."