Student looking through a microscope

Kids get hooked on science at UF/IFAS Gulf Coast REC

To the naked eye, a spider mite isn’t much to look at, but when a group of second graders huddles around one of Hugh Smith’s microscopes, they see more than just a bug. “They see a tiny monster all blown up,” said Smith, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida Institute of Agricultural Sciences.

“They’re fascinated — some think it’s icky or scary, others think it’s cool and beautiful. I’m really interested in getting them to talk to each other about science, and this range of reactions helps me do that,” Smith said.

For several years, Smith and other faculty at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Florida, have been bringing youth into their laboratories and out into the field hoping to inspire them to consider a career in agricultural sciences. UF/IFAS GCREC hosts several groups of elementary- and middle-school-aged children annually, said Christine Cooley, who coordinates the visits.

On a recent visit, students from R. Bruce Wagner Elementary learned what it means to be a “locavore” by stocking a miniature farmers market with local produce and snacking on watermelon grown at the center. A tractor ride through the facility’s fields taught them about the center’s research mainstays, tomato and strawberry breeding, as well as the emerging crops, such as blueberries and pomegranates, being studied at the center, Cooley said.

“They were very intrigued by the whole notion of DNA and how our bodies are ‘coded’ to present different traits,” said Lois Horn-Diaz, the teacher at R. Bruce Wagner Elementary who accompanied her second graders to the center. “They made the connection between what they learned about how DNA was being used to create a tomato that is resistant to disease and what they had learned about the development of blueberries that are compatible with the Florida climate.”

During strawberry season, Vance Whitaker, associate professor of horticultural sciences at UF/IFAS GCREC, takes groups into the field to learn how strawberries are grown and how they taste freshly picked. Back in his lab, he explains how plant breeding produces the tastes and aromas of the fruit they just sampled.

“I hope they come away with a greater appreciate for strawberries as a crop and the strawberry industry; the effort and complexity of the food production system; and an introductory understanding of the plant breeding process,” Whitaker said.

When visitors come to Smith’s entomology lab, they learn about good bugs and bad bugs, and why studying insects is critical to agriculture. “Most of them are already aware of the importance of pollinators,” Smith said. “I was very impressed at the eloquence with which a second grader described photosynthesis and explained how the sun is the source of energy for all living things. You’d be surprise how much even young children know.”

However, there is always more learn and discover, and it’s the next generation who will be making those discoveries, said Jack Rechcigl, professor of soil and water sciences and director of the UF/IFAS GCREC. “At the center, we try to expose the kids to the different research areas we’re working on and stimulate their interest,” Rechcigl said. “We are trying to educate young people, get them interested in agriculture and hopefully pursue careers in that field.”

By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Sources: Christine Cooley, 813-634-0000, ccooley@ufl.edu

Jack Rechcigl, 813-633-4111, rechcigl@ufl.edu

Hugh Smith, 813-633-4124, hughasmith@ufl.edu

Vance Whitaker, 813-633-4136, vwhitaker@ufl.edu

UF/IFAS Photo by Trish Todd