Edelman Fellow Stephanie Montoya

Science teacher aids scientists in conservation efforts


After more than 30 years of teaching, working with sharks may seem tame by comparison, but being able to bring both experiences together has been the opportunity of a lifetime for LaVilla School of the Arts science teacher Stephanie Montoya. 

Ms. Montoya was selected last year as one of two Edelman Excellence in Teaching Fellows. The Cindy Edelman Excellence in Teaching Fellowship is intended to identify and reward excellence in teaching and support a program of professional development or research, providing up to $6,500 per teacher or $10,000 per teacher team. JPEF administers the fellowship in partnership with The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.  

 In her application, Ms. Montoya had indicated she’d like to use the opportunity to go to Costa Rica to work with Earthwatch Institute scientists researching sea turtles and bring the knowledge gained there back to her school and students. Instead of learning about turtles, though, she ended up fishing for sharks in Belize and living among the indigenous people for a week in January.  


She and six other women lived in a one-room home with no hot water and collected rainwater for washing and cooking. “It was interesting the way they live,” said Ms. Montoya. During the day, she and others joined the Earthwatch Institute scientists gathering data on sharks in the area. 

 “It was awesome,” she said. “We were following up on what the scientists had started by tagging sharks to see if the conservation efforts were working. One of the scientists had come up with a way to measure what types of sharks were being fished.”  

The research project, being done in conjunction with the Maya who fish for shark and export the meat to other countries, involved setting lines for sharks and then measuring, clipping their pelvic fin to collect DNA, tagging, and releasing them. 

“We would put these lines out to actually fish for sharks and then come back two hours later to check the line,” she said.  

On her first day they caught a hammerhead shark. “You have to be very careful with a hammerhead because they’re very sensitive to being caught on the line,” she said. While typically the volunteers were hands on with the sharks, in that instance one of the scientists took over the data collection.  

The research being done in Belize indicates that the Caribbean reef shark and the Blacktip shark are in danger from overfishing. As part of the conservation efforts, local fishermen receive compensation to help the Earthwatch scientists thereby actually limiting the number of sharks being fished. 


The trip to Belize, though, is just the start of the Fellowship experience for Ms. Montoya. The Edelman Fellowship emphasizes teachers share what they have learned with their school community and engage students in lessons based off that experience. 

Towards that end, Ms. Montoya had her students research Earthwatch Expeditions, and she is planning a big Shark Week in May for them to learn more about the sharks she helped research.

 “I’m going to get the kids to do it and let them be in charge,” said Ms. Montoya. In addition, the students will be working on conservation projects to present at the Riverside Arts Market.  


She’s excited, too, to continue the learning opportunity next year.

 “One of the reasons I picked this expedition is that I got excited when I started reading about the scientists,” said Ms. Montoya. “The scientist who started this particular project in Belize, Dr. Demian Chapman (you may have seen him on the Ellen Show), is now the Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. I have taken kids there before, and next year I want to take my students there to meet him and talk with him.”  

“I was very excited to see that I might be able to bring what I learned in Belize back to my students in Florida,” she said. “I’m so grateful to the Edelman Fellowship for giving me this opportunity.” 

To learn more about the Cindy Edelman Excellence in Teaching Fellowship and begin the application process, please visit the Cindy Edelman Excellence in Teaching Fellowship page.




of public schools in Duval County earned an "A," "B," or "C" in 2021-2022.