Connecting STEM to Agriculture
On a family farm, parents teach their kids STEM skills through their farmwork.
Elisabeth Loseke's Hands-On Education
When asked how I have been exposed to science during my lifetime, my matter-of-fact response is usually something like this: "I grew up in a science lab." I can only imagine the thoughts running through the other person's head. Whose parents would put their child through that? How do I reach the nearest child protection hotline? Being aware of those unasked questions, I am quick to add that my "science laboratory" home is a 1500-acre farm and a 4000-head cattle feedlot, where I gained a strong educational base without the structure of a classroom.
Refocusing on Agriculture
I feel incredibly blessed that I had the opportunity to grow up on a farm where I learned critical thinking and problem solving along with math, biology, and physics. But people like me make up less than two percent of the American population, so not every kid has the same opportunities I did. So what is the solution? How can urban and suburban kids get the same kind of hands-on education and learn from farmers without actually growing up on a farm? There are several ways to integrate hands-on agricultural learning into the required subjects typically taught in classrooms today.
Reading comprehension is evaluated by standardized tests and is therefore one of the main focuses in elementary education. I remember that my elementary stories were cute and funny but required no critical thinking. Because of this, any first grade student could tell you what happened after Jack and Jill went up the hill, but they have no clue what could have been done to prevent this mishap. If kids have to read anyway, why not give them reading that stimulates them to solve a problem? Have a main character who is hungry in the morning, decides to go to the store, and realizes there is no food because the farms are all gone. Then walk readers through the process of how food gets to that store so they'll understand the need for agriculture.
After they understand why agriculture is necessary, they can enter into the depths of the biological processes behind production. This is where integrating agriculture in the classroom is direct and easy. No matter what age students are, they need to take ownership of a project or experiment. Help them plant seeds, and set up experiments with fertilizers to demonstrate how much more they can produce with growth promotants. Give students fish to keep in the classroom, and encourage them to take responsibility by feeding them every day and cleaning their tanks on a regular basis.
Learning Connected to Real Life
Similar to the reading example, agriculture can easily be integrated into basic math problems. As long as students are learning how to carry out calculations, story problems have a large amount of room for variety. Multiplication could be learned by informing students how many square feet a cow needs to live comfortably, and then having them calculate the size of a pen for 80 cows. Calculating ratios of the ingredients in feed rations would be a way to teach percentages. Basic farm accounting could also be addressed within elementary mathematics.
At some point in the school year, preferably toward the beginning, students should go on a tour of a farm so that they can see the importance of the things they are learning in the classroom. By making a connection to real life, they would be more inclined to take an interest in the curriculum. Many farmers are willing to have guests visit their place, and if you're in Nebraska, you'd be more than welcome to visit mine!
Although I'm now in college studying animal science with the goal of becoming a veterinarian, the lessons I learned from growing up on a farm will help me in my future career. Whether it was the responsibility of feeding my 4-H steers every day, learning to use a GPS to map cornfields, or trying to translate my parents' immense scientific vocabulary into English, these skills learned outside the classroom are still helping me to accomplish tasks given in the classroom.