Students Engage With Working Researchers

Students Engage With Working Researchers Through Scientist in Every Florida School Program
Posted on 02/01/2021

Since 2019, Palm Beach County School District science teachers have had the opportunity to bring scientists from around the state into their classrooms as part of an initiative led by the University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute (TESI) called Scientist in Every Florida School, or SEFS.

The SEFS program works with K-12 teachers in Florida public schools to match them with scientists who align with their lesson plans and goals. When a scientist visits a classroom, students have the opportunity to learn about exciting new research in science beyond what is found in most textbooks. The scientist may lead the class in a hands-on activity, or simply answer questions and discuss their career journey.

Palm Beach County was one of the original five target counties where the program was initially launched, along with Alachua, Escambia, Lee, and Seminole. During the 2019 – 2020 school year, 44% of Palm Beach County schools connected with scientists through SEFS, with 97 STEM teachers participating.

Jennifer Davis, secondary science program planner for the District, appreciates that the SEFS program helps students learn firsthand how scientists conduct research in the real world, and how it helps them see working in a scientific field as a viable career path.

“Teachers are able to connect their students with scientists doing real work in their fields, solving real problems that kids encounter every day on the news. The scientists' excitement and passion for their work engages the students like no other learning experience,” Davis said. “The students witness real science happening, and they also get to see that these kinds of meaningful careers are firmly within their reach!”

Participating scientists must have a research focus related to Earth systems science — the study of the interactions among air, water, land, and life — which is in line with TESI’s mission to advance public understanding of environmental issues.

“Through this innovative program, our mission is to provide authentic science experiences to students and inspire Florida’s next generation of environmental stewards,” said Stephanie Killingsworth, K-12 education and outreach coordinator for SEFS.

While the program launched in just a few pilot counties like Palm Beach, it has since expanded statewide. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, SEFS opened its scientist visits to public schools across the state via Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. After noting the success of the virtual sessions, the team decided to continue to provide virtual scientist visits to any Florida public school classroom indefinitely.

“Embracing virtual visits gave teachers the opportunity to collaborate with scientists for whom distance was a barrier for in-person visits,” Killingsworth said.

In Palm Beach County, many students and teachers have been introduced to SEFS virtually. Since April 2020, SEFS has connected 37 Palm Beach classrooms directly with scientists through these innovative new livestreamed sessions.

In one virtual visit that featured NASA astrobiologist Dr. Amy Williams, high school students first solidified their knowledge about a concept familiar to them from their textbooks, the Three Domain Model, before Williams gave examples of how the concept is used in current research.

Williams shared how NASA scientists used information obtained by the Curiosity rover to identify conditions hospitable to life on Mars. Students debated the forms of life most likely to be discovered on the planet, using their knowledge of the Three Domain Model.

Thanks in part to this new expansion, scientists across the state completed 351 visits to classrooms, representing 180 schools and more than 14,000 Florida students in 2020. Since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, 4,139 Palm Beach County students have engaged with a scientist through SEFS. The growing SEFS network now supports collaboration among 1,000 public school teachers and more than 400 scientists.

In addition to personalized classroom visits, SEFS has also launched two new Palm Beach County-based virtual field trip series open to all Florida schools. The Into the Garden series, co-hosted by Mounts Botanical Garden of Palm Beach County, takes K-12 students on virtual tours with scientists to explore topics related to plants, insects, and other natural resource topics.

The Ocean Expert Exchange series, co-hosted by the ANGARI Foundation, features researchers who take students on a deep dive into marine science topics. Additionally, the SEFS team provides teachers with curated K-12 extension activities and resources to bolster the learning experience. Recordings of events can be found on the Thompson Earth System’s Institute's
YouTube channel.

The c
ore of the SEFS mission is to provide science teachers the resources they need to succeed. Each year, SEFS hosts several professional development workshops where K-12 teachers work together to develop lesson plans with scientists that are rooted in current research.

In July 2020, SEFS hosted its second annual professional development workshop for teachers. Over the course of one week, teachers and scientists collaborated to develop lesson plans to help students better understand the “nature of science,” or the tools, theories, and skills used to carry out research.

This year, the workshop took place entirely online. Forty teachers representing 10 different counties were paired with scientists from 10 laboratories from the University of Florida, University of Miami, and Florida Atlantic University. Seven teachers from Palm Beach County were part of the cohort of educators. After the workshop’s conclusion, teachers remained connected with their partner scientists, who committed to at least one classroom visit during the 2020-2021 school year.

“Through the SEFS program, we really want to bridge the gap between academic research and K-12 classrooms and provide K-12 public school teachers with the support to do so,” Killingsworth said.

Interested teachers can find out more information by contacting Stephanie Killingsworth at [email protected].

To request a classroom or county-wide visit with a scientist, visit:

For more information about the Scientist in Every Florida School Project, visit:

The University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute’s Scientist in Every Florida School program aims to build long-term collaborative relationships between teachers and scientists, better integrate current scientific research and big data into classroom lessons that adhere to Florida Sunshine State Standards, and connect a scientist with every school in the state. More information is available at:

The School District of Palm Beach County