Karen Villalobos, an eighth-grade science teacher at Western Pines Middle School, is the recipient of the first Scientist in Every Florida School (SEFS) Superstar Award.
The University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History established the Thompson Earth Systems Institute in 2018. That was followed by the creation of the Scientist in Every Florida School initiative last year.
For the first time, SEFS recognized one of the teachers involved in the program, which is designed to literally bring scientists and schools together.
“This is a new program and a first-time award that really focuses at the teacher level,” said Stephanie Killingsworth, the K-12 education and outreach coordinator at SEFS. “That connects and translates to the student level, and we wanted to show how much we value our teachers and their role in science.”
SEFS is a statewide program that provides free professional development opportunities to teachers with an emphasis on fostering a direct link between students and a variety of jobs in the scientific fields. Teachers collaborate with scientists on lesson plans, activity development and labs for the classroom.
While the award itself is new, Western Pines Principal Robert Hatcher was not surprised to see one of his teachers receive statewide recognition for their innovation.
“Ms. Villalobos came to me at the beginning of the year wanting to participate in this program,” Hatcher said. “We are a high-performing school and encourage our teachers to think outside of the box. Karen really took the ball and ran with it. I’m proud of what she has accomplished.”
Scientists including a geologist, a watershed expert and a geneticist have already visited Villalobos’ classes, and more teachers at her school are getting involved.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for the kids to see real world applications of why we want science in school, and why it is important,” Hatcher said. “We now have three other teachers included in the program.”
The SEFS Superstar Award included a cash prize and a plaque, which was presented to Villalobos at her school.
“[Villalobos] teaches a very diverse group of kids. She is getting it done with kids from one end of the spectrum to the other. From the lowest, struggling kids to the highest-performing kids — and they are all experiencing success in her class,” Hatcher said.
With more schools and teachers getting involved in the initiative, the Superstar Award program will continue.
“We want to do a quarterly award because we are a statewide program. Schools can have one or a multitude of teachers involved in the program, and the long-term relationships established with scientists include professional development in a lab or field setting, depending on the teacher’s interests,” Killingsworth said.