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Scientists offer help for teachers and online programs for kids among pandemic

Teachers scrambling to assemble online learning get help from scientists

Students face challenges with online learning
Students face challenges with online learning

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The ongoing global health pandemic has disrupted traditional school learning, prompting Florida K-12 teachers to quickly mobilize, rethink their curriculum and launch virtual classrooms.

To help with this transition, the University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute’s Scientist in Every Florida School program has developed a suite of digital, on-demand K-12 resources that teachers can easily deploy using their virtual teaching platform of choice. The materials are readily available for use on the program’s website.

“As soon as schools closed, teachers were bombarded with a smorgasbord of curated online educational resources from various organizations. Based on feedback we heard from teachers, sorting through those while trying to move their classes online was overwhelming,” said Stephanie Killingsworth, K-12 education and outreach coordinator with SEFS, and a former middle school science teacher.

“Instead, the resources we are helping gather for teachers are based on individual requests. We then make those resources available to other teachers who may be teaching the same science standard, for example.”

The resources, organized by topic and grade level, are specifically designed to meet state science standards. Each topic package includes several elements to make up a complete lesson plan: a short educational video, a writing prompt or worksheet, a virtual field trip, supplemental reading material and hands-on activities. The lessons culminate every Friday during a live online discussion with a scientist on the subject. The idea is that teachers can pick and choose elements from different topics to meet their specific needs.

“The SEFS people reached out to me and organized this great opportunity in a time when we teachers are overwhelmed with learning new technology and staying connected with kids who don’t have technology,” said Leigh Larsen, a biology and environmental science teacher at Gainesville High School. “I am so thankful for the support I have gotten and I know the students and parents appreciate how opportunities like this keep the standard of education high in these weird times.”

Each lesson plan is rooted in current research that focuses on Earth systems science – the study of the interactions among air, water, land and life – and how human activities influence these systems. To leverage the breadth of scientific knowledge at the state’s flagship university, SEFS is partnering with UF Research to curate stories and short videos from the university’s Explore research magazine that can be packaged as part of the lesson plans.

“If a teacher doesn’t see a particular topic represented, they can email us and we will get to work on it. This is a truly on-demand and individualized process,” said Brian Abramowitz, K-12 education and outreach coordinator with SEFS.

Understanding the ever-changing situation, Abramowitz said the team is on standby to take specific requests and mentor those who may be new to online teaching platforms. The team is also holding virtual office hours every Wednesday at 9 a.m. EDT, or by request, to work with teachers to develop any materials they might need but aren’t yet available.

“This is the way our program has operated all along,” Abramowitz said.

Like its name sounds, the SEFS program matches working scientists with classrooms in Florida, either in-person or through videoconferencing software like Zoom or Google Meets. But these visits are just a piece of the puzzle. The mission of the program, housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History, is to create lasting teacher-scientist relationships that can inspire novel lesson plans and new ways of teaching science.

In its first seven months, about 500 teachers and 150 scientists have participated in the program, which has reached more than 200 public schools representing over 10,000 students.

“It’s because of these relationships that we were able to talk directly with district leaders and teachers to see what their immediate needs are,” Killingsworth said. “Because of this, we were able to quickly get feedback, develop meaningful science content and actively support teachers during this time.”

The SEFS pilot program has been primarily working in five target counties: Alachua, Escambia, Lee, Palm Beach and Seminole, with plans to soon expand into Levy and Marion counties. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the online program is now open to teachers statewide. Killingsworth said requests for visits and collaborations are increasing every day.

Educators who have already been working with SEFS can still request individual virtual classroom visits. But program coordinators are encouraging teachers to open their personalized visits to other teachers and students around the state as a symbol of solidarity.

“We’re using tried-and-true strategies we’ve already developed to meet this need in time of crisis,” Abramowitz said.

To build capacity for this effort, SEFS coordinators have been working with partners including: UF Research, the Community Scholars Initiative at Valencia College, Mounts Botanical Garden, Florida Gulf Coast University, the City of Orlando, Angari Foundation, Lubee Bat Conservancy, the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Randell Research Center, South Florida Science Center and the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

To access the Scientist in Every Florida School Digital On-Demand K-12 Resources, visit: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/earth-systems/sefs-digital-on-demand-k-12-resources/

To schedule a session with the SEFS team, visit: https://calendly.com/sefs/sefs-district-teacher-needs-discussion?month=2020-03

To attend the weekly SEFS office hours every Wednesday at 9 a.m. EDT, visit: https://ufl.zoom.us/j/112122210


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