2018-2020 UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute Faculty Fellow
Associate Professor, curriculum and instruction
UF College of Education
Pasha Antonenko, a faculty fellow with the University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute, remembers building his first website on a local server in the mid-90s, before his Ukrainian city had internet access.
He didn’t mind that only his family and friends had access to it. He simply admired the creativity and informational architecture needed to design a usable web page. For extra cash, Antonenko also built computers from old parts and pieces to sell. As a Ph.D. student studying linguistics at Nizhyn Gogol State University, money was sometimes hard to come by.
Today, as the director of the University of Florida Neuroscience Applications for Learning (NeurAL) Lab, Antonenko focuses his research on how to use technology to make science more accessible, usable and engaging.
“I have a lot of appreciation for designing technologies that actually work for people —that are usable, not just useful,” he said. “Because if something is not usable, people are not going to use it long enough to know that it’s useful.”
Antonenko’s path to become one of UF’s top educational technologists was somewhat of an accident. During his time as an early career graduate student, he had his heart set on becoming a professor of language and literature. But while he was writing his dissertation, Antonenko’s major advisor passed away. He was forced to rethink his career path.
Antonenko took a temporary job as an interpreter at an educational technology conference in Orlando. While translating the sessions for the other Ukrainians in the audience, he realized he might have found his new discipline.
At one of the conference socials, a conference attendee told Antonenko about an educational technology Ph.D. at Iowa State University. With nothing holding him back, he and his wife made their new home in the midwest. In 2007, Antonenko graduated from Iowa State University with a Ph.D. in curriculum and instructional technology and human-computer interaction.
He joined the University of Florida in August 2012 after 4 years as an assistant and then associate professor of educational technology at Oklahoma State University.
Antonenko is now working with TESI director Bruce MacFadden on a $1.1 million National Science Foundation project, iDigFossils. As a principal investigator, he makes sure the program equips K-12 teachers with the necessary tools and strategies to integrate paleontology into their lesson plans by using 3D printers to recreate fossils.
One of Antonenko’s roles in the project is to give insight about how to use the 3D printers in a way that’s educational, not just “fun.”
He explains that when 3D printers first became popular on the market, a lot of schools were quick to purchase them, “because everybody found them cool.”
“But then, they didn’t know what to do with them,” Antonenko said. “This happens a lot with technology in education. When we were integrating computers in the 90s and in the early 2000s, we had the same problem.”
With the iDigFossils program, Antonenko saw potential.
“This is such a cool application of 3D printing where students can learn about climate change, weather, evolution—you name it,” he said. “Students also get to learn 3D scanning tools and 3D modeling tools. They develop an entire skill set.”
Last year, the iDigFossils team brought in approximately 45 teachers from around the country for a professional development workshop to help them implement the iDigFossils program in their classrooms. Now, Antonenko is working on crunching the data to see how well students are responding. The results are promising.
“Students, particularly girls, have demonstrated increased interest in STEM and STEM related careers,” he said.
As a TESI faculty fellow, Antonenko hopes he use his expertise in educational technology to help fulfill the institute’s mission to increase public understanding of Earth’s natural systems.
“We have the same mission, to make science accessible and interesting to people at any age,” Antonenko said.
“I am excited to collaborate with the TESI team and other faculty fellows to create technology that sparks curiosity and increases knowledge of scientific and environmental issues.”