The University of Florida Department of Geological Sciences wants to show young students that geology rocks.
It’s doing that through a local outreach program which, among other things, gives elementary school students a chance to meet scientists and to participate in interactive lessons about rocks, minerals and fossils.
“They get to see that scientists are real people,” said Andrew Zimmerman, an associate professor in UF’s Department of Geological Sciences and founder of the program, known as UF GeoGators. “They see that anyone can be a scientist.”
Students at Glen Springs Elementary in Gainesville recently got a chance to experience that realness. At its yearly Science Night, the geology department featured an array of different rocks and fossils for young students to touch and play with, as well as a few different mineral and sand samples for students to look at through microscopes.
Students were also encouraged to learn more about the rocks through interactive games hosted by Zimmerman and two UF geology students, third-year undergraduate Harshit Saini and first-year graduate student Daniel Fischer.
Zimmerman, who started GeoGators 10 years ago, said the program has evolved since he originally founded it to assist science teachers by providing them lesson plans and resources.
“It’s not so much about teaching geology,” Zimmerman said. “It gets them excited about the sciences.”
The GeoGators program serves students around Alachua County anywhere from kindergarten to sixth grade. Zimmerman said most of the students they serve are in second, third or fourth grade.
While the program also serves requests from outside organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Zimmerman said the bulk of what they do is in schools. He said they typically visit about 20 classrooms each year and reach about 200 students.
Geology is also apparently becoming more alluring to students; UF geology majors have increased steadily over the past several years. According to statistics from UF’s provost’s office, since 2007, the number of declared undergraduate geology majors has increased from 92 to 148.
Yet Zimmerman said GeoGators isn’t looking just to get students into geology. He wants it to help get students excited about the sciences by giving them an opportunity that may be rare to many of them: a chance to meet a real scientist.
Zimmerman said getting children excited about the sciences at a young age can help with getting more students in science later on in their lives. For the school visits, he and a team of undergraduate and graduate geological science students at UF assemble lesson plans and gather materials for interactive lessons about rocks, minerals or fossils. He said the visits are typically taught by groups of two or three UF students.
The GeoGators are also featured guests at events outside the classroom, such as Glen Springs’ Science Night last Tuesday evening.
Glen Springs hosts the science night yearly. Several other UF science departments and local businesses in the Gainesville science community exhibited interactive experiments for about 60 children, mainly consisting of kindergarten through third graders.
Fischer said events like the GeoGators’ classroom visits and science nights like the ones hosted by Glen Springs can help get kids excited about science, while Saini said he wished that a program such as GeoGators was available to him when he was younger.
“I wish I had more interactive experiences to help me with deciding what I wanted to do with my life, back before I got into college,” he said.
Like the geologists at the event, Emily Moran, president of the Glen Springs PTA, stressed the importance of making the sciences approachable and interesting to students at a young age.
“It gets kids and families involved in science and together to learn,” she said. “Any time you can get learning in during the day is great.”
Glen Springs Principal Jacqueline Jones agreed with Moran’s sentiments on the importance of kids getting to see scientific concepts in an interactive way.
“Science is such a core subject, and students can see concepts in action at events like these,” Jones said.
Zimmerman said he helped organize the science night the previous year, when his own children were enrolled in Glen Springs. He said the GeoGators program doesn’t just have value for young students, but it also is valuable for the UF undergraduate and graduate students involved as both a resume builder and a way for them to exercise and sharpen their teaching skills.
Kyle Bostick, a geology graduate student at UF, said it helps exercise his skills to put complicated ideas about earth sciences in a way that young students will understand.
“They learn really through touch,” Bostick said. “It’s neat how they discover stuff about the earth.”
Fischer also said programs like GeoGators are also a great way for UF to give back to the community.
Zimmerman agreed. Each year, he and the Department of Geological Sciences also hosts “Can You Dig It?” an annual geological science fair at the Florida Museum of Natural History for large numbers of students. This year it will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 12.
Even if the students decide not to go into the geological sciences, Zimmerman said such a program still has value to them.
“We get to teach them cool stuff,” Zimmerman said.