George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learning STEM Through Agriculture on a Nebraska Farm

Members of the Loseke family use STEM skills each day to run their ranching business. See how Elisabeth, Erika, and Cort apply these skills in everything from veterinary science and nutrition, to agriculture and meteorology. 

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Learning STEM Through Agriculture on a Nebraska Farm

Elisabeth: I feel like I basically live in a science laboratory, whether it is the crops that are grown in the field, the nutrition that dad has to figure on his cattle to figure out how they're going to gain best, or helping my parents in the vet clinic.

June: They help us in most everything that we do, and I just see it as life. This is what we're doing, and they do it along with us, but there's nothing that we do here that doesn't probably involve science.

Ryan: I'm the fifth generation to operate this farm. On this farm, we grow corn and soybeans and some alfalfa. Most of the corn gets fed to our cattle that we feed at the feed yard, so it's kind of a fairly common Midwestern type of family farm setting.

June: He has a veterinary science Bachelor's and I have an animal science Bachelor's. And then we went on and got our Doctorate degree. Yes, we're scientists, and that's what we do. But I see myself more as a food safety veterinarian, making sure that your food is healthy, so you don't have to worry about it when you cut into a steak or a piece of chicken or whatever it is that you choose for your protein source.

Ryan: Drove 4, so I'm putting in, 5340 high moisture corn, and up to 5850 a supplement.

Elisabeth: In the livestock industry, that's all science, the feed rations that dad has to plan are very in-depth, and it takes a lot of strategic planning and thinking.

Cort: Why do we give more hay to the younger cattle?

Ryan: Because they came off the pasture and so their tummies are used to--

Cort: And hay is like grass.

Ryan: Roughage. Right, right.

When you look at the cattle, they're a biology experiment right there. Ruminant nutrition, it's different than mono-gastric, so you can look at nutrition on how they eat, and the ingredients that they eat.

June: So there's a triangle here. And this is her jugular vein, and that's her cervical vertebrae, and then--

Ryan: You can look at them from an immunological standpoint, how your vaccines prevent them from being sick, those kind of things.

Elisabeth: So this morning I vaccinated the five-way vaccination, so that prevented five different viruses. And because of the prevention, we don't have to use as many antibiotics. It's much more efficient for us, because there's less sick cattle in the long-run, and it's for the health of our animals.

Ryan: Should be good. We get Reveler 200, Bogo Shield cleanup.

Elisabeth: Computers are definitely used in every aspect of our operation. At the feed yard, we have a program that we enter treatments and vaccinations for different pens of cattle. And because of that, we're able to make sure that the withdrawal dates are correct and that cattle aren't sent to market while there's still antibiotics in their system. This steer has an abscess right here on his neck. You're okay, buddy.

Cort: Normally, we just give them the vaccine. But usually there's something wrong  with at least one steer other than that it needs vaccines. One of the cattle had an abscess, like right under his chin, there. So we had to flush it out.

Ryan: You can go over to the crop side, and you turn to agronomy. You know, that's something you learn when you're little, fertilizer, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium. And water conservation, erosion. I mean, it's just seems like it is all around us.

Elisabeth: Even the way our pens are designed, whether it's the slope of the pens, or how the water run-off happens, or even the electric fence, that's all physics, and that's all science. So like I said, I literally live in a science laboratory.

June: My kids, since they were newborn have ridden in the saddle with me at the feed yard, and so they've looked at steers every day since they were little. And so steers are what they do.

Erika: I go with Liz and we ride pens at the feed yard in the morning, and check for sick or hurt cattle. Also every morning we wash our 4H show cattle, and brush them up, just working with them, get them ready for the fair.

Ryan: Okay, question number one, which steer is the Hereford market steer?

June: This is a market steer class, and so these guys will be hamburger and steak in a little bit, and so he's evaluating them, good structure, and he wants good balance, he wants a thickness throughout from his rear all the way to his shoulder, and you want a wide back, because that's where the main part of your tenderloin, your prime rib, that's where that comes from.

Carsten: So what we did, we had about six different animals. There was a market and a breeding for each type of animal. And we just had to pick the best one that would suit it for that thing. Like you'd pick the largest animal with the best muscle for market.

Elisabeth: As far as the pet clinic goes, I've been taught anatomy since I was three. Just watching them and learning from them.

June: So cats don't have as long of a cervix, or a  body of uterus. So with dogs, that'll stretch the womb out. You want to get closer to the ovaries. With cats, you can usually pull their ovaries out.

Elisabeth: The spay that we did, I've helped mom do those spays for many years. And I learn about suturing.

June: Their little minds, ever since they were little when Ryan would be doing an necropsy on a calf, "What organ is that? How does that organ function?" He did life science and anatomy and physiology as they went.

Ryan: Critical thinking is something I want my kids to learn more than anything. And that goes beyond the farm. Whether, you know, just thinking critically about, "Does this process make sense?" Or, "Should I do this or not?"

Elisabeth: I think there's absolutely no comparison to actually just doing the work and watching it happen. There's no way that you can learn that by sitting in a classroom and having somebody tell you that. I think that since I've grown up with my parents, I've learned so much, just basic problem solving that I don't think you would get if you're not in the workforce.

Ryan: There ya go.

Cort: There we go.

Ryan: Okay. Now, make sure, are they on zero?

And I think through problem solving, I think it teaches our kids to not be dependent on others. Create your own opportunities, don't depend on somebody else to come along and fix it for you. And as a parent, sometimes it's hard to step back and let them problem solve, put one of the kids to do a job, and they're doing it wrong, and you just have to walk away and let them learn. And my dad did that to me. And I think as a parent, I'm finally realizing, he did have to bite his lip or turn his head, and say, "Well, figure it out." 

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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.

More Resources for STEM Education in Agriculture

STEM Everywhere: Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math in the Real World
Explore STEM education in settings beyond the classroom walls, and see how opportunities to learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are all around us.

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