GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When the University of Florida gave the call to move classes online in 2020, faculty in the UF/IFAS department of microbiology and cell science transitioned hands-on labs and learning experiences into a virtual environment. Monika Oli, master lecturer in the department, knew she had to find innovative ways for students to work with microscopes, cell slides and pipets even when her students’ homes became their classrooms.
“When [UF] said, ‘teach microbiology online,’ I thought that sounds like a great opportunity to do something challenging,” Oli said.
Oli designed, packed and shipped comprehensive lab kits that included equipment students needed for the three-hour lab sessions. Each kit was packed with a microscope, pipets and other lab materials, and Oli wondered if there was a way to extend the life of these microscopes and make a positive environmental impact. One answer rose to the top of her mind: Donate the gently used equipment to primary schools in Florida.
Oli contacted her students who received the lab kits and offered them an opportunity to donate remaining useable items from their kits to local schools. They could either bring the equipment to the UF campus in Gainesville or send the items back in the mail.
Students rallied to donate more than 200 microscopes and other lab equipment were donated to three schools in Florida: P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, Howard W. Bishop Middle School and Wesley Chapel Elementary School.
“I really wish we could all develop that vision of sharing our knowledge and opportunities with our community,” Oli said. “Sometimes just looking once in a microscope can change your life forever.”
Oli also collaborated with the three schools to develop curriculum to use throughout the 2021-22 school year.
And the microscopes are indeed changing lives, or at least changing perspectives, of elementary students.
Lauri Basik, a fifth-grade teacher and science representative at Wesley Chapel Elementary, said her students only had access to a few older, heavy microscopes that were hard to move and could only be used in designated science labs. The newer microscopes they received provided the school’s students with a more accessible way to engage in hands-on science learning experiences in the classroom.
Using the equipment piques the students’ curiosity, Basik said.
“Our students get so excited when they see a cell. They’re able to cross reference with what they have seen in textbooks and draw and label what they are actually seeing, and it makes it real and exciting for them,” Basik said.
“The students that we serve don’t have a lot of access to those [hands-on learning] types of experiences,” Basik said.
After using the microscopes for the first time, Basik’s students connected with Oli via Zoom. The elementary students shared how they compared plant cells to animal cells and the differences they saw through the microscopes. In turn, Oli gave the students a virtual tour of the microbiology and cell science labs at UF.
“It was fantastic,” Basik said. “Students saw the UF labs and said, ‘I want to go there!’”
The microscopes offer tangible experiences to excite students about science. Basik said she witnessed her students’ pride in themselves when they succeed in seeing cells through the microscopes. She believes this is a learning experience that leads students to both scientific and self-discovery, and it can be widely accessed for any student.
“And that’s the thing, any kid can do it,” said Basik. “Any kid can learn and discover when they have the right environment to do so.”
Microbiology and cell science, the study of small living organisms, is one of 23 undergraduate majors offered through the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Undergraduate students in the program learn about molecular biology and genetics, immunology, virology, host-pathogen interactions, cellular ultra structure and microbial physiology, among other topics.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) 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 brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.