Through the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Project’s University of Florida Immersion into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Experience, talented and gifted high school juniors and seniors from small and rural districts across Florida spent five full days immersed in STEM learning on the university’s campus.

From the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC) area, 29 STEM Scholars and seven teachers took advantage of this unique opportunity. This customized experience, tailored to the unique needs of these students, was made possible through a partnership with the University of Florida’s Center for Precollegiate Education and Training (CPET).

STEM Scholars representing Gulf County were Port St. Joe High School seniors Allen Davis and DanTasia Welch and Wewahitchka High School senior Samantha Hoover. Franklin County School seniors were Jathan Martin and Stefan DeVaughn.

Throughout the week students interacted with university faculty and graduate students as opportunities were provided to learn about a variety of STEM career options and the post-secondary preparation required. They also gained familiarity with techniques and procedures used in scientific research by conducting experiments involving crystallization, DNA extraction, PCR, gel electrophoresis, and construction of morphological and molecular phylogenies of a group of plants. These experiments took place in the Health Science Center and were led by UF College of Medicine students and university faculty members. Students also took advantage of some of the outside classrooms on campus as they learned about soils, explored a Florida wetland ecosystem where they waded through wetlands to collect various types of data, spelunked in a dry cave associated with the Floridan Aquifer, and visited Blue Springs, where water from the Floridan Aquifer emerges.

Throughout the week students used university-provided iPads to document their experiences daily on Edmodo and Blogger. The iPads were also used to create a photographic journal and develop final presentations covering a range of STEM careers. The week was packed full of fun learning and students went home with many new friends and an expanded outlook on STEM career options.

The FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Project is funded through the Florida Department of Education’s Race to the Top award and involves a partnership among Florida’s three educational consortia, which provide critical educational support services to Florida’s small and rural school districts. The consortia are Panhandle Area Educational Consortium in northwest Florida, Heartland Educational Consortium in south central Florida, and North East Florida Educational Consortium in the northeast part of the state. The project is focused on serving gifted and talented students in grades 9 – 12 who reside in the small and rural school districts served by PAEC, HEC, and NEFEC. The project affords increased access to rigorous STEM courses, provides collaborative problem-solving experiences, and ensures that students are well informed about STEM career options.