UF is bringing a scientist to every Florida school

A picture of a male scientist working with students

The Scientist in Every School program brings UF scientists into classrooms to work with students and teachers.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

Students and teachers throughout Florida are learning more about scientists and their work through UF’s Scientist in Every Florida School program. Bruce MacFadden, director of the Thompson Earth Systems Institute, oversees the program and in this episode, he shares how the program got started and why it matters. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

For more episodes of From Florida, click here.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida.

I'm your host, Nicci Brown. Our guest today is Dr. Bruce MacFadden, who is director and distinguished professor at UF’s Florida Museum, among other titles.

Dr. MacFadden's research specialization is in paleontology and he is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific articles, along with numerous other achievements, including multiple grants from the National Science Foundation.
Obviously, we could talk with Dr. MacFadden about any number of fascinating subjects, but today we're going to focus on something that I believe is close to his heart — the education of future scientists and specifically the “Scientist in every Florida School” program. Bruce, thank you for joining us. It's much appreciated.

Bruce MacFadden: It's great to be here. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little more about the Scientist in every Florida School” program and how it came about?

A picture of a man

Dr. Bruce MacFadden, director of the Thompson Earth Systems Institute 

Bruce MacFadden: Sure. So, I'm the director of the Thompson Earth Systems Institute that was created in 2018, and the UF president challenged the UF faculty with what was called the moonshot programs just after we formed the institute. So, we submitted a proposal to develop a pilot program called a “Scientist in every Florida School,” And we were fortunate enough to be one of the projects that was funded. So, that's the origin of the project that I'd like to talk about today, the “Scientist in Every Florida School.”

Nicci Brown: So, is the program unique or are there others like it in the United States?

Bruce MacFadden: Yeah. So, there are some other programs that have similarity, but so far as I know, the “Scientist in every Florida School” is the only one that reaches out to the entire state to try to give high quality STEM instruction for teachers and students, particularly in public schools and we focus on schools that are Title 1.

Nicci Brown: What was the impetus behind the generation, aside from the fact that there was this moonshot kind of challenge issued, what are some of the challenges that might be faced by our K through 12 science teachers?

Bruce MacFadden: Well, that's a big question. Staying current with modern research discoveries that are made at places like in the University of Florida is very hard for teachers to keep up with. So, part of our institute's mission is to do a better job of communicating the research discoveries that are being made by scientists here at UF and elsewhere in Florida, with regard to what are called earth systems, which is basically an understanding of the interaction of air, water, land and life, and human impacts on those earth systems. And we wanted to make sure that we were communicating the most current knowledge about these sorts of scientific concepts throughout the state of Florida.

And what we found was that many teachers who may have gone to school a decade or so ago, really needed to have some training or additional training and professional development to make their content knowledge more current. And likewise, teachers who teach science in elementary schools, grades K through five, some of them never had much of a science-content training when they were in college. So, what we want to do is we want to reach out and we want to sort of bring up the level of the scientific research that's current to both teachers who teach science in middle and high school, but also to help elementary school teachers teach good science as well.

Nicci Brown: It's obvious this is something you're incredibly passionate about. Can you tell us a little bit more about where that passion comes from?

Bruce MacFadden: It comes from my sense that I'd like to give back to society. I've been very fortunate to have been a scientist and had I not had a very encouraging 10th grade earth science teacher when I was a student in a public high school outside New York City, I probably would not be a scientist right now. So, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Greenstein and I'd like to give back to society. So, I want to give teachers the best opportunity for them to be successful in their professions. And one way I can do that is give back through the science and through this program.

Nicci Brown: And I've got to imagine that Florida is a terrific place to be able to apply some of those things that you learn in the classroom for our students and just taking a look with our coastline and all of these places that we have in the state.

Bruce MacFadden: All the really important things that relate to the science in our earth systems can be seen in Florida. The coastline is changing, invasive species, the predominance of hurricanes and other storms, all these things we need to know about because they affect Florida and Floridians. And the best way to better understand about what's going on now, but also to understand how we can cope with these elements in the future is through better education.

Nicci Brown: And one of the things that struck me when taking a look at the program is just how it has helped in a way that makes it easier for teachers to access this kind of information and really made it very simple for them.

Bruce MacFadden: Yeah. We have an online application portal where a teacher will say, I'd like a scientist to come in, in a month's time, and I have a curriculum on, say, coastal processes or the earth's magnetic field or invasive species. And what we do is we're a matchmaking service. We have about 750 scientists who we see if their content expertise aligns with what the teacher wants and then we put them together.

Nicci Brown: So, you match up the scientists and the teachers, but there's magic, I guess, and that's a bad word probably speaking to a scientist, but there is something special in that reaction of how you get it to a student in a way that they're going to understand.

Bruce MacFadden: It's a synergy between the scientists and the teacher. We do not have prescribed lesson plans off the shelf. What we typically do is we talk with the teacher and say, what would you like to do? In fact, the meeting that I'm going to have with the teacher this afternoon, I want to make sure that I align my presentation with what she needs. I want to basically understand that we can co-develop my visit so that it makes sense to the teacher as well as that I can provide the best kind of content.

Nicci Brown: And it seems like that's really the very special thing about the program that you're running, that it is encouraging that kind of synergistic partnership.

Bruce MacFadden: Yes. And we want it to be sustained. We do not do one-offs where we just go to a school and then that's it. We want to go to a school and establish a collaboration with teachers, and then we want the teacher to know that they can get back with us and ask us questions or invite us back into the classroom in the future. And then maybe next summer they'll want to take another professional development training session with us.

So, our goal is to form a network of sustained collaborations between scientists and teachers. And what we've found also is that the scientists get a lot out of this in terms of feeling more confident about how their communication skills are and giving back to society. So, it really is both of the partners in this are benefiting mutually in the relationship.

Nicci Brown: And in a broader sense, society is benefiting as well.

Bruce MacFadden: That's right.

Nicci Brown: One issue that was raised in a recent report by the National Science Board is the disparity between different school districts and even between schools in a way that science is taught. And I think you touched upon this a little earlier, it sounds like that's part of the true rationale behind the program.

Bruce MacFadden: It is. We want to make sure that there's a level playing field with the understanding and teaching about STEM in a larger context. But for me, it's more about earth system science so that all teachers and students can benefit from what we know about current research in this field.

Nicci Brown: I think many of us have stories about that one teacher or that one mentor who set the course for our current careers. And it also looks like this is a real crucible, if you will, to try and expose young students to entertain the idea of being scientists for the future.

Bruce MacFadden: Part of the project, the “Scientist in Every Florida School” is to send role models from diverse backgrounds into the schools — these are mostly graduate students at the University of Florida — so that the students in the schools can see that a scientist can look very different and have very different journeys. And that's what we want to let them know that if they want to be a scientist and apply themselves, they also can be a scientist. So, the role model visits are very powerful and teachers really want us to come into the classrooms virtually — now it's mostly virtual as a result of COVID, but that basically has led us to scale up and broaden our ability to reach schools throughout Florida.

Nicci Brown: Yes. Looking at the map, it sounds like you've really gotten right anywhere from the southern tip of the state right through to the north.

Bruce MacFadden: Yeah. That was intentional. We wanted to make sure that all parts of Florida were covered in our ability to reach out to them. And we now are working with about 40 counties ranging from Escambia County in Pensacola area to Duval County in Jacksonville, to Lee and Collier counties in Southwest Florida to Palm Beach, Broward in Miami, in Southeast Florida.

Nicci Brown: Thinking about the word scientist, do you think that students K through 12 really understand what it is to be a scientist?

Bruce MacFadden: I would say there's a general misconception about what a scientist looks like and it's typically an older white male. We're trying to dispel that misconception so that students can aspire to be a scientist and they might come from different backgrounds and have very different interests.

Nicci Brown: What are some of the things that you hear from teachers when they're talking about reactions from their students when they're exposed to these young scientists coming into their schools?

Bruce MacFadden: It energizes them. It makes them feel that they can identify as being a scientist themselves.

Nicci Brown: And when you hear about the kinds of ideas that they're having, do you think they make that linkage between, okay, I'm going to be a scientist and I'll do X and it will have this impact that's very tangible to my everyday life?

Bruce MacFadden: Maybe not, but they want to. So, that's why another part of what we try to do is to instill in the students and the teachers what kind of careers are available in the 21st century for these students. Because otherwise, if you're a scientist, maybe they don't know that they actually can find a job, a really good job in society and be a scientist. So, we want to also let them know that there are very interesting kinds of jobs that they could aspire to if they want to become a scientist.

Nicci Brown: So, really dispelling that person locked in the laboratory with the white coat and sitting there with beakers.

Bruce MacFadden: That used to be the traditional notion of what a scientist looks like. But I sense and, hopefully, it's changing.

Nicci Brown: So, how do schools and teachers engage in the program?

Bruce MacFadden: So, they sign up on an online request form and then we pair the scientists with the teachers. That's one way they engage with the program, but we also have teacher training or professional development. And we typically have a summer institute here at the University of Florida and each summer we have a different theme. The first year, three years ago, the theme was on the biosphere, so life on earth. And then two years ago it was on the nature of science, which is how scientists act, what is the process of science and how is it actually done? And this past July, we did our teacher professional development on the hydrosphere, also Florida water.

Nicci Brown: What about the scientist? How do they get involved?

Bruce MacFadden: Yes. So, there's an expectation of giving back to society for many scientists and actually funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, require that, in addition to doing your science, you also have to give back to society through something called broader impacts. So, we're very much, in our institute and in the program, about broader impacts. And actually, the class I just came from is a graduate course in broader impacts.

Nicci Brown: How do you measure the suitability of a scientist? I mean, there might be someone who’s like, I really want to get involved, but I'm assuming there's some kind of assessment program.

Bruce MacFadden: There certainly is. We interview every scientist to make sure and we sense about their attitudes and their communication skills, whether they would be a good match. And the other thing is, it's one thing to talk about your science in, say, an IB course in a high school, but to try to talk science to a third grader is very different. And you have to have the skills and sense of who your audience is and how to communicate with them in a way that makes sense.

Nicci Brown: So, in many ways you're really acting as a matchmaker?

Bruce MacFadden: Well, absolutely. And we have over 1,000 teachers in our database from the 42 counties and 750 scientists.

Nicci Brown: Going back to this National Science Board report, it does reiterate the fact that the U.S. lags behind most wealthy nations in STEM education. Given the national importance of STEM, has there been interest from other states in the “Scientist in Every Florida School” program?

Bruce MacFadden: One of our graduate students just wrote a paper, where he partnered with four other graduate students and early career scientists elsewhere in the United States, and wrote a position or a policy piece on that something like the “Scientist in Every Florida School” program should become a national model. But right now, we're not there yet.

Nicci Brown: Are there any steps that you've imagined that you could take to get to that point? Is there anything moving forward?

Bruce MacFadden: I'm focusing right now on Florida, which is a heavy lift because as the name says, we would like to each year put a scientist at least once in every public school in Florida and there are more than 4,000 public schools in Florida. So, we have our hands full just fulfilling that need. When we're successful there, then we can think about moving to other states. But right now, I'm totally focused on making a difference in Florida public education.

Nicci Brown: Well, I do like the “when we’re successful” definitely a positive spin on that. So, thank you very much for being our guest today. It's very much appreciated.

Bruce MacFadden: You're welcome. Thank you for having me here.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

January 11, 2022