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UF/IFAS Modern Day da Vinci: Katie Stofer

This May, the world marks the 500th anniversary of the death of scientist, artist, inventor and innovator, Leonardo da Vinci. In honor of this occasion, UF/IFAS has chosen four faculty members that each exemplify at least one of da Vinci’s four most well-known talents and contributions to society.

Katie Stofer
Research Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural Education and Communication
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Katie Stofer focuses her research on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and public engagement, especially in informal education and outreach settings, with an emphasis on making STEM evident in agricultural education. Her primary interests center on how the public gathers, makes meaning from and uses current scientific research findings – and how that use relates to their science identities. In particular, she examines science communication using visualizations of data and models.

Describe your research

I’ve come to describe my research and Extension as trying to innovate new methods and models for public engagement with science or STEM. I’m basically trying to help facilitate conversations between scientists and researchers and all their various audiences, but particularly those that are outside the typical university and research audiences – for the public good so that we can help make progress and hopefully make progress on some of these problems that are facing society today.

How do you employ the globe (depicted in the photo above) to engage people with science?

The globe, funded by the National Science Foundation, is part of a longer-term research project helping people understand visualizations of data and particularly these global visualizations of data. The globe system allows people to explore and compare these visualizations using direct touch interaction, based on technology from our partner Pufferfish , Ltd.

Increasingly, scientists know that they need to translate the words they use, but they haven’t always been translating the images along with it. So, this is part of the research to do that. We look at the globe as a tool to display and then interact. You can manipulate the data to get a global and local/regional idea of what is going on.

Why are effective communications between scientists and the public important?

The reason many scientists go into the research we go into is to help people and to make a difference in the world, to make progress in general. But we aren’t often taught well how to share our work.

To actually get our research beyond our typical insular research publications and make a difference on the problems we want to help, we’ve got to work with other people who are making more day-to-day changes or making policy decisions, things like that. Also, we want to inspire the next generation of people who will go into science and STEM research or engineering and design, so that they know what it’s really like to do the work we do. To ask and try and answer the kinds of questions we are exploring.

What are some of the new models of public engagement that you designed?

I developed a local program based on one that’s had a few iterations around North America.
Here in Alachua County, it’s called “talk science with me.” The idea is instead of doing a presentation in a public space, pairs of scientists will go and have conversations with people in places that are more comfortable for the audience and more relaxing environments for the scientists. In smaller groups the feedback is more immediate.

The overall idea is for us at the University of Florida to reach out and meet people more where they are and have less of a burden on our new audiences to come to us.

In addition to bars, we go to coffee houses and restaurants, public libraries and laundromats. It runs about three times a year at 10 simultaneous locations. So, 20 scientists in pairs all around the county and we go to some spots in Gainesville, Melrose, Micanopy, Hawthorne, Archer and High Springs to try to get around the county.

Your thoughts on innovation and its role in this global society.

I think fundamentally as humans we are creative people and innovative people. So, in a sense you almost can’t stop us from innovating. But I think its role in the future is to think about innovating in a way that’s broadly beneficial, that leaves hopefully nobody out of the equation and works to correct a lot of things that we know aren’t working very well for people right now.

We need to innovate on how we communicate with our audiences so that we can understand how to share our work best but also recognize our role in the larger process. Innovation is not the answer on its own, there’s all sorts of other considerations.

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By: April Martin, 352-294-3302, april.martin@ufl.edu

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.eduand follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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