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‘Wearing’ a boa constrictor, fist bumping a sloth make UFTeach summer internships memorable

Brett Walker spent a summer morning wearing a boa constrictor as — well, as a boa. Dina Zinni, an aspiring astronomer from Jupiter (no, really, it’s true), spent her afternoons gazing at indoor stars. Not to be outdone, Ashleigh Tucker fist bumped a giant ground sloth as she wandered back in time.

Brett Walker

Brett Walker ‘wears’ a boa constrictor.

The three University of Florida seniors, along with 12 fellow students enrolled in the UFTeach program, discovered the power of informal STEM learning through paid summer internships as Noyce Scholars.

Thanks to a $1.2 million grant awarded last year by the National Science Foundation, the five-year Noyce Scholars program allows UF’s colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences to offer hands-on training opportunities to help recruit and prepare top science and math majors for teaching careers in the critical shortage areas of STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

Walker, who will graduate with a bachelor’s in geological sciences by summer’s end, says she is grateful for her UFTeach education, which has taken her to Iceland to study volcanoes; to the Caribbean to dive along the deep fore reefs of the Bahamas; to New Mexico, where she crawled through 70-mile-an-hour winds on the peak of the state’s highest mountain; and to the Paleontological Research Institution at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for this summer’s internship.

“My main job was teaching children about the treasures in their terrain and the excitement of Earth’s wild history,” Walker said. “But I also watched hot lava ooze toward me as part of the Syracuse [N.Y.] Lava Project.”

Dina Zinni

Dina Zinni stands next to Kika Silva Pla Planetarium’s Chronos Star Projector that is used for celestial shows and music performances.

She also helped out in other areas, and gladly agreed to give a short-notice presentation on the boa constrictor to a group of visitors.

“Holding a snake longer than I am tall and teaching children about it for 30 minutes was totally unexpected,” Walker said with a laugh. “Every day I woke up and did something new and exciting, so yeah, I’d say my internship was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Zinni, who plans to graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s in astronomy, spent her internship talking to visitors who came to watch shows about our solar system at the Kika Silva Pla Planetarium at Santa Fe College in Gainesville.

“My favorite part was working with kids,” said Zinni, who grew up in Jupiter, Fla. “They’re all so curious and they ask great questions. I’d love to end up running my own planetarium someday.”

Tucker, one of seven interns who worked at UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, said she gained a fresh perspective on how to teach math to different age groups after spending time at the museum’s numerous exhibits, including “Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life & Land,” where she high-fived and fist bumped a miniature replica of a giant ground sloth, circa 2 million B.C.

Ashleigh Tucker

Ashleigh Tucker fist bumps a replica of a giant ground sloth at UF’s Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

“I’m writing educator guides for the ‘T. Rex Named Sue’ exhibit that’ll be here in the spring,” Tucker said. “It focuses on math, so essentially it’s teaching K-8 students about dinosaurs by using math instead of the typical paleontology and biology stuff.”

Fellow intern Max Sommer, a senior majoring in geography, had a similar experience at the award-winning museum.

“I didn’t expect first and second graders to think and explore scientifically as much as they did,” he said. “They really ‘buy in’ and do a great job when interesting and fun activities engage them.

“That shows you the power of informal STEM learning,” he said. “I’ve learned the importance of that — not just for the students I’ll be teaching, but for people all around me throughout life.”

   Source: Sharon Holte, vertebrate paleontology Ph.D. student at UF; 
   Media Relations: Larry Lansford, director, College of Education Office of News and Communications;; phone 352-273-4137.
   Writer-Photographer: Stephen Kindland, College of Education Office of News and Communications;; phone 352-273-3449.


UFTeach summer scholars get hands-on training in STEM education

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A college student’s typical summer often includes lounging by a pool, spending hours glued to technology and social media, and sleeping until noon.

For recipients of the University of Florida’s Noyce summer scholarships, however, vacation days this summer were spent soaked in science teaching and learning.

Noyce summer scholars are enrolled in the university’s UFTeach program, a collaborative effort between the colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences that provides math and science majors with an education minor to prepare them for teaching the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. During the summer, each scholar serves as an intern at an informal science education setting, such as a museum, zoo, botanical park, fossil dig or nature center.

Summer scholar Barry Congressi prepares a rhinoceros vertebrae fossil for display at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

UFTeach Summer Scholar Barry Congressi prepares a rhinoceros vertebrae fossil for display at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

“Today’s students need a much stronger foundation in STEM subject areas beginning in middle and high school, and teachers have one of the most significant impacts on student learning,” said UFTeach associate director Dimple Flesner. “It is critical that mathematics and science teachers have a strong academic background in the subjects they teach. UFTeach answers this call.”

As part of a five-year, $1.2 million grant, the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program will fund 18 UFTeach scholars every summer with a $5,000 stipend, as well as 10 additional students each school year with $10,000. The Noyce program funds higher-education institutions across the country to support scholarships, stipends and academic programs for STEM majors who pursue a teaching credential and commit to teaching at least two years in high-needs public school districts.

“We hope our Noyce interns will discover the value and importance of informal education settings and begin to see the world as their classroom,” said Flesner, a co-principal investigator of UF’s Noyce internship project along with UFTeach co-director Tom Dana, an associate dean at the College of Education.

UF senior math major Barry Congressi, one of this year’s 18 summer scholars, mathematics major has been working at the Florida Museum of Natural History on UF’s Gainesville campus. He is stationed at the museum’s vertebrae paleontology unit, where he cleans and prepares fossils for display.

STILL, Brooke_9132

Summer scholar Brooke Still helps a camper on his art project at Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Although Congressi is studying mathematics, he said his Noyce internship has been both a personal and professional learning experience.

“Not only have I really learned a lot about paleontology in the last couple of months, but I have discovered that I can find inspiration for mathematics lessons anywhere and almost anything can be used to help teach others,” he said.

Junior Brooke Still is also a math major working within a science environment. She is an intern at Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and its butterfly conservatory. Each day, Still either works with children participating in Fairchild’s summer camp, or she interacts with and educates guests at the butterfly conservatory.

Her experience, she said, has taught her practical skills that are necessary in the classroom. One of these is patience.

“Without patience, you can’t successfully motivate your students or guide their learning,” she said.

Caguetzia Soulouque

Caguetzia Soulouque at Miami’s Jungle Island

Also in Miami is sophomore Caguetzia Soulouque, who has spent her summer afternoons coordinating field trips and planning fun, informative and memorable lessons for young visitors at the Jungle Island zoo. She also was working to develop an educational curriculum for the zoo’s field trip visitors and its potential future summer camp.

“Through this experience I’ve learned a lot about what learning opportunities children are receiving and aren’t receiving in schools, as well as how I can use Jungle Island and similar places as a teaching resource,” Soulouque said. “It’s summer and kids don’t want anything to do with school, so I’ve had to learn how to make lessons that are entertaining yet educational.”

Senior Shivee Gupta, a zoology major interning at the Florida Museum of Natural History, is also finding ways to make science fun but still challenging. Her workdays involve creating videos and exhibits for visitors and educators about subjects like invasive species, animal attacks and beach bird nests.

Zoology major Shivee Gupta  prepares a beach bird nest display at the Flurida Museum of Natural History.

UFTeach zoology major Shivee Gupta prepares a beach bird nest display at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“The main challenge we have as educators is how we get a message across to our students and to the public that is understandable,” Gupta said. “Through my internship and the class that goes with it, I’ve learned how to take scientific knowledge and present it in a way so everyone can understand it without ‘losing’ the science. 

The NSF’s Noyce scholarship program is just one of several recent initiatives by the College of Education to bolster teaching and learning in the STEM subjects. Each of the selected Noyce scholars recognizes the need for more STEM majors and teachers in this global knowledge economy.

For intern Brooke Still, it all begins with “better informed and more passionate STEM teachers who motivate their students to learn, resulting in students who are genuinely more interested in STEM subjects,” she said.

“Our world revolves around STEM subjects,” Gupta added. “Everything you do and see has some science or math incorporated. Students need to begin to see a holistic view of the world and STEM education really brings that together.”


WRITER: Alexa Lopez, news and communications, UF College of Education, 352-273-4449
MEDIA CONTACT: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education, 352-273-4137

INDEPENDENT FLORIDA ALLIGATOR, GAINESVILLE SUN: National Science Foundation scholarships

Independent Florida Alligator, Gainesville Sun
1-30-13, 2-4-12
National Science Foundation scholarships

The Independent Florida Alligator and the Gainesville Sun wrote articles about a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant that was awarded to the College of Education to fund scholarships for STEM majors in the UFTeach program. Tom Dana and Dimple Flesner were quoted in the reports.