Montverde Academy students took part in a hands-on exploration of the world beneath their feet during a recent visit to the UF/IFAS Department of Soil, Water, and Ecosystem Sciences (SWES). The students are part of the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Study Area Concentration (STEM SAC). During their visit, the high school students spent the day gaining valuable insights from SWES professors and graduate students.
The department’s Graduate Student Association sponsored the event. It provided the high school students an opportunity to tour four of six SWES labs. The faculty members involved in the visit research topics such as environmental toxicology, soil and water chemistry, soil physics, sustainable nutrient management, soil microbial ecology, and urban soil and water quality.
“It was interesting to see the different kinds of science in the department,” Cadence Whitehouse, a Montverde Academy junior, said. “My interest is in biomedical science. I’ve mostly been focused on biology, but I’ve seen a lot of the physics and chemistry involved in the soil and water labs.”
Fellow junior, Hayden Violette, agreed, saying the visit left her with a new appreciation for soil and water.
“They seem so simple, but there’s so much more to soil and water,” she said.
Whether it was a closer look at the microscopic world in soils or the relationship between urban development and water quality, science teacher Amy Napoles hopes all the students have a better understanding of ecosystem interactions.
“We love taking the students outside of the classroom. To see the research happening here is eye-opening for them,” she said. “There was great engagement between our students and the SWES faculty.”
Graduate Student Involvement
Napoles, who is pursuing her master’s degree in SWES, said the visit would not have been possible without the help of her fellow SWES graduate students.
Julia Barra Netto-Ferreira is one of the organizers. She said they achieved the goal of connecting students interested in STEM with research underway in the department.
“We also wanted graduate students and faculty to engage with the high school students and showcase their work,” she explained. “They are a different audience than we typically reach, so it’s creating another bridge to the community.”
Graduate student Vanesa Rostán said the visitors from Montverde Academy come from a solid science program. But she added that exposing them to the wider range of research showed them the other opportunities and possibilities.
“That’s something that they shared with us at the end of the tour,” she said. “The students were surprised about the entire world of soil, water, and ecosystem sciences.”
Faculty Open Their Labs
Faculty members who opened their labs to the students also noticed their fascination with cutting-edge technologies and equipment. Dr. Ebrahim Babaeian, assistant professor of soil physics, conducted an experiment with the hyperspectral imaging system. It involved dry and wet sand soil samples from a Florida farm along with healthy and unhealthy plant leaves.
“The students observed and identified the differences in hyperspectral signatures of soil and plant with different properties and were fascinated as we analyzed the soil and plant spectra using our software,” he recalled. “They also asked me a series of interesting questions, which revealed their true passion for understanding these advanced technologies and how these measurements could contribute to addressing real-world environmental challenges.”
Dr. AJ Reisinger, assistant professor of urban soil and water quality, said the diversity of interests among the students impressed him the most.
“There were students who want to pursue careers in computer science, mechanical engineering, the medical field, or focus on sustainability,” he said. “Regardless of careers, the students were engaged and seemed genuinely interested in our conversation about urban watersheds and freshwater ecology.”
Napoles agreed that the students made a connection between their interests and the key research areas of SWES.
“Most of the students were able to pick up on how the quality of soil or water within an ecosystem in some way relates to the science they are interested in pursuing as a career,” she said.
The newfound appreciation for the complex world beneath their feet demonstrates the power of hands-on exploration. The experience also shows soil, water, and ecosystem sciences are just a few of the many disciplines under the heading of STEM.