Agriculture in the Classroom provides learning, opportunities for children | TSLN.com

Agriculture in the Classroom provides learning, opportunities for children

Nikki Work
Reporter/Designer for The Fence Post

Talking to pupils

When Jessie Dafoe walked into an elementary school classroom in rural Torrington, Wyo., she didn't expect the fourth-graders to know everything about agriculture. What really surprised her, though, was how little some of them knew.

She asked the room of ten-year-olds if they could tell her what agriculture or natural resources were. One student raised his hand and told her he thought it had to do with tradition or history.

"For (Torrington's) fourth graders to not know what agriculture is was very worrisome," she said.

Dafoe, the executive director of Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom, spent the rest of her time with those fourth-graders explaining ag, telling them what crops and animals are most commonly produced in their county and helping them understand where their food comes from. By the end of the day, the children were abuzz with information about their dinners, their state and their lives.

"Just to see that light come on for those kids — to make that connection is really empowering, not only for me, but it's exciting to see the students discover that in a way that makes sense to them," Dafoe said.

The Wyoming program is a piece of a much larger puzzle. The National Agriculture in the Classroom program links every state together with a common purpose — teaching children about the land, its stewards and its products. Each state's program handles this slightly differently, but all make various resources available for teachers to incorporate into their lesson plans to bring ag out of the field and onto the whiteboard.

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"The cool thing is, lately in the press, you hear that people want to be more connected to where their food comes from and these lesson plans allow them to do that," said Cathy Musick, executive director for Kansas Agriculture in the Classroom.

She explained that through their program, students are learning about not just the origin of their lunch, but the infrastructure necessary for and the byproducts of Kansas' major crops.

One of the goals of the Agriculture in the Classroom program is to incorporate agriculture in a way that meshes with the curriculum standards already in place. For this reason, both Wyoming and Kansas, among other states, offer lesson plans in math, science, language arts and social studies that meet requirements for each subject, but deal with ag topics.

"The main message is that they're using agriculture as a teaching tool in project based learning," Musick said. "We think that this is important for students to understand where their food comes from, so we're increasing their ag literacy along with all of their other skills like in math and science and so forth."

Kansas currently offers their own, customized lesson plans, separate educator guides for both ag and natural resources and kid-focused, age-appropriate magazines. Teachers can search for lesson plans based on grade level, subject or ag topic.

In Wyoming, the program is working now to develop its own curriculum. Right now, they are developing the curriculum for first through third grade, and will progress forward year until they have made it through 12th grade.

The new curriculum would complement other programs the Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom program uses, like the community-beloved bookmark contest," Dafoe said.

Now in its 21st year, the contest allows third, fourth and fifth-grade students to design and create a bookmark falling into one of six ag categories. Last year, almost 1,500 bookmarks were entered into the contest.

The deadline to submit bookmark entries has passed, but the judging of the entries will take place March 16-20, and the public will be able to vote on top bookmarks for a "People's Choice Award." The 13 winners, two in each category and one public choice, will be announced April 1.

"Just by participating in this contest, they learn so much about agriculture in Wyoming, and really all across the country as well," said Kayla Soster, administrative assistant with Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom.

Though this is Soster's first year working with the program, she said she has already seen just how impactful teaching students about agriculture can be.

"They are just figuring out it's bigger things — (agriculture is) how you get clothes, that's how you get your food, that's how you get to work … just introducing that at young ages really opens their minds to exploring the industry and maybe having an interest in a career in the future."

Another program both Wyoming and Kansas offer are summer institutes, where teachers can come and learn about agriculture and how to integrate this familiarity into their lessons. Since the first of these seminars in Wyoming in 2011, the number of teachers enrolled has doubled.

This year will be the first year for a new program in Kansas called "Connect to Ag," where they will spend two years with a school district and form a team to implement ag education through all the schools. The first district will be Colby Public Schools. One part of this program will include high school ag educators teaching their students about specific careers, and then sending their students to teach elementary school students about what they've learned.

Musick said one of the purposes of expanding this ag education is prepare students for the possibility of a career in agriculture. With current issues in ag, such as the aging population of the agricultural sector and a national struggle for enough ag educators, Musick said planting these seeds is paramount.

"I really think that the way (kids) remember things best is if they have had some sort of great learning experience," Musick said. "It might be the science, maybe the math part, maybe they see a demonstration of a young person operating a drone — I just think we need to give them all kinds of a variety of opportunities to see what's out there."

That variety is something Kansas Agriculture in the Classroom focuses on. Musick said preparing students for changing technology and changing trends in ag is one of the best ways to help them take the first step on their own agricultural journeys.

"The new technologies and so forth, and all the science and math and computer skills that are a need in agriculture — that that's where the young people will fit in," Musick said. "I honestly think that we don't even know what jobs will be available in 10 years because everything is moving so fast in data management and biotechnology and regular technology. It's crazy."

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