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USF Graduate Student Inspired to Make a Difference

Following in an Icon’s Footsteps, USF Grad Students Prove Good Neighbors Can Also Be Good Science Teachers

In 2014, legendary primatologist Jane Goodall visited the University of South Florida and spoke with students not just about her scientific career but her work in encouraging young people to take action to help their communities. The lesson stuck with USF graduate student Karena Nguyen, who needed to look no further than Pizzo Elementary School on campus to see a need.

USF graduate student Karena Nguyen, brings science to the classroom at Pizzo Elementary.

Over the last three years, Nguyen and her fellow graduate students in the Department of Integrative Biology have become a part of the school’s community, starting first with a community garden at Pizzo and now working to teach interactive and hands-on science lessons to third graders.

When the students first started volunteering at Pizzo, the students were struggling to participate in the district’s annual science fair program. But with coaching from the graduate students, the Pizzo kids not only were able to come up with ideas for the science fair, but complete their projects – a major step forward for a school where students’ learning can often be impacted by multiple moves between schools, language barriers, and poverty. During this past spring semester, USF graduate students have volunteered to teach science classes, bringing to life exciting real-world adventures scientists experience, like diving in a submarine.

“Just seeing the lightbulbs go off when we are talking to them, it makes it all worth it,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said the idea to connect USF graduate students to Pizzo Elementary School came to her soon after meeting Goodall during the visit to USF, where the legendary scientist gathered with students at the USF Botanical Gardens and talked about how her program, Roots and Shoots, began with one project but now spans thousands around the world. An undergraduate student chapter of Roots and Shoots also was formed.

Goodall, who is also a UN Messenger of Peace, created Roots & Shoots to encourage youth to take community action that benefits others. The USF graduate students started with a community garden at the school, but soon realized the need for mentoring in science lessons and the knowledge they could share with the children would engage them in science in ways they’d not experienced before.

Renowned Primatologist Jane Goodall, shares her wisdom during a trip to the University of South Florida in 2014. Photo by Aimee Blodgett.

“We wanted to give the (Pizzo) students more individualized attention and encouraged them to ask more questions,” Nguyen said. Toward the end of the semester, Nguyen and her fellow coordinators developed the concept of a "Guest Scientist" and had graduate students come in to talk about their research.

On a recent weekday, USF PhD candidates Charlotte Stinson – who also works as a science educator at the Museum of Science and Industry - and Mary Kate O’Donnell unpacked a collection of salamanders collected as part of O’Donnell’s research into how amphibians move. These are creatures the Pizzo students might not normally see – in the wild, they live in the chilly streams of the North Carolina mountains or in California. These new creatures prompt a lot of questions – starting with the obvious.

“Do they bite,” a shy girl asks, eyeing a bright red salamander.

“Sometimes, but it doesn’t really hurt,” O’Donnell answers earnestly. “They’re little.”

O’Donnell carefully shows the students how the salamanders use their feet to stay on the flat surface as it’s tilted at steep angles.

“This is way better than any human could do,” she remarks. “I think even Spiderman would even have a problem with this.”

In addition to learning how the salamanders breathe through their skin and are able to move up flat pieces of Plexiglass with the help of mucus on their feet, the students were introduced to some of the scientific tools like how these researchers use light to measure a tiny salamander foot on a surface or use digital cameras that shoot 3,000 frames per second to study movement.

For third grade math and science teacher Jennifer Bennett, the USF offered a fresh new approach to science lessons for the children – and she could notice the benefits to the USF grad students as well.

"I also believe the grad students benefited from the opportunity to work with a diverse group of young students whose knowledge of science beyond the classroom is limited," Bennett said. "I know the students at Pizzo not only learned a lot, but they loved the experience."

Story by Vickie Chachere, Research & Innovation
Photos by Ryan Noone, University Communications & Marketing

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