Stephanie Lopez-Ruiz

USFSM intern at Mote brings marine science to under-served

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: August 01, 2017

SARASOTA, Fla. (Aug. 01, 2017) – Some days saw Stephanie Lopez-Ruiz discussing shark skin and how the sandpaper-like surface is composed of “dermal denticles,” or tiny skin teeth.

On others, she talked about how energy moves through waves, how sharks lack bone and why the moon affects tides. It was all in a day’s work for Lopez-Ruiz, who delved into these and scores of other science-related topics as a community outreach intern at Mote Marine Laboratory.

For three months, May through July, the USF Sarasota-Manatee student served on Mote’s community engagement team and visited schools, community centers, educational fairs and other events to share the wonders of Mote’s research and marine science in general.

It turned out, the experiences meant as much to Lopez-Ruiz as to the children she was teaching.

A Master of Arts in teaching student at USFSM, Lopez-Ruiz was able to use her internship to build on her studies. Put another way, the outreach experiences provided lessons she couldn’t have learned in the classroom.

“It was nice to take something abstract and conceptual and apply it in a tangible way, to connect the pedagogical to the practical in a manner that’s useful to my future,” she said.

Among other places visited by the program were schools and youth programs in rural and urban settings such as Emma E. Booker Elementary School, the YMCA, Girls Inc., and the Boys & Girls Clubs. Lopez-Ruiz’s job was to make science come alive for these children, including those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to visit Mote.

To do this, she often used visual aids and had the children up and out of their seats, participating in the lessons. In one exercise, with guidance from Mote educators, she asked the children to stand together while a ball was moved around the room. The children were asked to lean toward the ball as one unit to simulate the effects of the moon’s gravitational pull on oceans.

In another lesson, about how energy moves through waves, she had two students holding the ends of a rope. As one student flicked the rope, “a wave” passed through it to the student at the other end.

“What I really appreciate was that this internship taught me about adaptive teaching, specifically how to make a topic challenging and stimulating at each level of learning for all students,” she said.

So impressed were teachers at one local school – the Pace Center for Girls in Bradenton – that they invited her to address a large group of students to talk about how education made a difference in her life.

The daughter of a school teacher, Lopez-Ruiz, 25, grew up in Bradenton and excelled at learning from an early age. By the time she graduated from Bayshore High School, she had earned enough college credits to obtain an associate’s degree. Eventually, she went on to attain a bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology at USF in Tampa.

Since then, her twin loves of science and teaching have compelled her back into the classroom to pursue an education degree. She said she would like to work as a science teacher, but for now she’s focused on elementary education, which would have her teaching a variety of academic disciplines.

“It was rewarding to be given such an honorable opportunity and connect with these girls on a personal level,” she said of the experience at Pace. “The fact that they were receptive to what I had to say made me feel as if I had made a difference and shaped them to have a more hopeful perception of life. I told them that education is the defining factor for a successful future and they have the power to shape their future, starting now.”

Lopez-Ruiz said she landed the internship by visiting USFSM’s Career Services office. She liked that the program offered flexible hours so she could keep up with her classroom studies and that she could visit multiple settings. The program is set to resume in the fall, although it will shift to a part-time position to accommodate a full-time student.

“Internships like Stephanie’s provide valuable opportunities to put into practice the concepts students learn in the classroom while building essential workplace competencies,” said Ben Heins, coordinator of internships and service learning at USFSM. “Statistically, having an internship can nearly double a student’s odds of gaining full-time employment after graduation, so it is imperative they seek this type of practical experience.”

Elaina Todd, community engagement coordinator at Mote’s Education, Aquarium and Outreach Division, said the outreach program is important because it brings Mote’s research and marine science to under-served and under-represented audiences in our community. In addition to visiting schools, the program and its mobile exhibit visit community centers, such as the RL Taylor Community Complex and after-school programs and special events like the recent Shark-Con in Tampa.

For interns, such as Lopez-Ruiz, it offers “a fantastic opportunity” to put into play the strategies they’re learning in school, Todd said.

“It’s a terrific crash course for students interested in education,” she said. “You work with diverse audiences and really learn to adapt your teaching to your specific audience, and what and how you need to teach.”

She added that she enjoyed working with Lopez-Ruiz.

“It was nice to have Stephanie as part of our team for the summer,” said Todd. “We share many of the same educational philosophies. She did a great job and she learned quickly by observing and assisting the education team. During the last few outreaches of her internship, she was able to develop and teach her own programs.”

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