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Fostering a love for science education


Betty Dunckel

Director of Education and Center for Informal Science Education
Florida Museum of Natural History

From developing programming for preschoolers to transforming mobile devices into learning tools, Betty Dunckel has come a long way since earning her bachelor’s degree in biology and food science from Cornell University.

“I thought I wanted to be a high school biology teacher,” said Dunckel, director of education and the Center for Informal Science Education at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. “But as life happens, I was taking an outdoor education course and became interested in out-of-school settings.”

Dunckel earned her master’s in teaching from the University of New Hampshire and her doctorate from UF in science education. When she started working at the museum in 1977, she focused on developing school programs and on teacher education, coordinating workshops across the state.

A few years later, her creativity was put to the test. Starting with the idea that many museums begin with private collections, she founded Collectors Day in 1980, now the museum’s longest-running event.

“We have individuals come in and show their private collections,” Dunckel said. “It’s everything from different themed collections to slide rules to antique microscopes to PEZ dispensers.”

One of her most popular collaborative projects has been the creation of a native wildflower and butterfly brochure. The Florida Wildflower Foundation funded the nearly half a million copies distributed, as well as the wildflower garden located behind the museum near the intersection of Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road.

To keep up with demand, Dunckel is helping develop a mobile application, or app, for identifying 600 to 700 species of flowering plants, butterflies and birds. In 2010 she jump-started the museum’s first collaborative app project, “Call the Wild,” which engages visitors in learning about the alligators and penguins on exhibit at the Jacksonville Zoo.

With Project Butterfly WINGS, Dunckel helped develop a national 4-H curriculum that engages youth in learning about butterflies and will help scientists document common butterfly species. One of her proudest stories stems from the program, when a participating student from South Florida transformed the idea into a winning science fair project.

Dunckel also was the driving force in creating Marvelous Explorations through Science and Stories, a Head Start program fostering language and literacy development, problem solving and curiosity through scientific experiences for preschoolers.

With the ever-expanding realm of knowledge, Dunckel aims to reach all ages, she said. “Not everyone is going to grow up to be a scientist,” she said, “but you do want everyone to have an appreciation for how science works and what science can tell us because of its importance in everyday life.”

Dunckel most recently helped develop the Explore Research exhibit at the museum, which showcases research across campus.

Photo credit: Kristen Grace — University Photography
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