Inspiring Future Scientists

There’s nothing better than having a group of young students visit GCREC for a tour. Well, most groups. No offense to middle school children or their parents, but that age group is a little difficult to keep engaged. They can come up with the best questions, however. We host approximately 6 to 10 different school groups during the year, mostly during the strawberry season. It’s a challenge that I personally welcome because if we can inspire just one child a year to consider a science-based career, I feel like we have been successful in our education efforts.

Our tour begins with a kid-oriented PowerPoint complete with diseased fruits and vegetables – the grosser, the better. It’s great to hear all the “ewwws” and “yucks” from the short-in-stature audience. Depending on the size of the group, we might break them down into small groups and get them ready to tour the building, grounds and then back into our auditorium for some hands-on stations.

We have some of the best faculty here at GCREC and they often allow these groups to visit their labs for some one-on-one interaction as seen here in Dr. Justin Renkema’s entomology lab. Students are usually quite surprised that someone can grow up to be a bug doctor! Another favorite stop is the Diagnostic Clinic where Dr. James Mertely patiently allows the students to view mold and diseased plant tissues through his amazing high-powered microscope. Then it’s out to our greenhouse area where the children are given a quick overview on how our computer-controlled houses read and gauge temperatures along with watering techniques and other cooling efforts such as shade cloth and swamp coolers.

One of the highlights for our student tours is meeting with our farm managers, Jose Moreno and Jeb Cofer, by the tractor storage. They get a detailed lesson on tractor safety and Mr. Moreno can show off his missing digit from a minor accident he had with a tractor years ago. Then it’s off to the strawberry fields to meet with some of the staff from our strawberry breeding program. The kids are then invited to pick a small bag of berries and taste test some of our more unusual varieties including a Japanese white berry, grape soda flavored berry and a berry with a hint of peach flavoring. We’ve noticed most bags of harvested berries rarely make it home. By the time they are rounded up and start walking back to the auditorium most of the bags are nearly empty!

The final stop for our student guests is in the auditorium where several of our labs have stations for entomology, plant pathology and breeding, each with a unique lesson giving kids some additional knowledge of the science behind agriculture. We also have at least one craft station where they can do a fun project to take home like a butterfly magnet or bird feeder.

Once the tour is over, students, teachers and chaperones are packed back onto the buses and head back to school. Upon their exit, I always have at least one student exclaim “I want to work here when I grow up!” How cool is that? It just takes one inspired child to perhaps come up with a cure for strawberry gray mold or develop a new variety of tomato that can produce more yield in a small space. Keeping “Education” in the name of our center by letting little scientists take over our center throughout the school year. It’s the best.


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Posted: March 21, 2017

Category: Agriculture, Events, UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Extension
Tags: Entomology, Future Scientist, GCREC, Gulf Coast Research Center, Hands On Learning, Plant Pathology, Strawberries, Student Tour Groups, Tomatoes

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