Hands On Learning: NILE Teams with Extension to Provide Children with Ag Education
Fourth graders in the Yellowstone Valley area have a unique opportunity to experience a multifaceted and hands on agricultural learning experience at the Northern International Livestock Expo in Billings, October 15-23, 2021. For several decades, NILE has been teaming up with area county extension services, conservation districts and other livestock and agriculture groups to give children a chance to see where their food comes from.
“We strive to present an in person introduction to the entire agriculture spectrum,” said Bonnie DeVerniero, NILE Equine Programs director. “We have geared it toward fourth graders; they are old enough to understand a little more than the younger children, but still young enough to be curious about life and amazed by what they learn.”
Over the span of three days, a group of presenters will take participating children through a series of eight to twenty minute courses on weeds, crops, honeybees, beef production, other livestock and related agricultural topics. Students can explore educational booths about water and soil conservation, pollinators, native weeds, grasses, and plants, and come face to face with farm animals.
“We have six different stations set up,” DeVerniero said. “We bring the children through in classroom sized groups. We try to keep the numbers in each group small so that we can interact with the children individually more, and so they are more comfortable asking questions. We try to make it easy and fun for them and we try to cover a broad spectrum of agricultural topics.”
It’s a program that has been around for decades; DeVerniero said that she can remember attending as a fourth grader herself.
“The ‘American Honey Queen’ comes, and gives a presentation on how honeybees affect agriculture,” she said. “The Montana Cattlewomen and our Yellowstone County Cattlewomen explain beef production—everything from cow calf operations to hamburgers. We have samples of all of the crops grown locally in the Yellowstone Valley and explain how they are used in animal feed and food for humans. Our MSU extension range science educators talk about our grasslands, healthy soils and healthy range plants. This is a collaborative effort with the NILE, the surrounding Counties’ Extension Service and the Conservation District that allows youngsters and their teachers the opportunity to have a tactile experience learning about many agricultural facts.”
Invitations are sent out to area schools every year at the beginning of the school year.
“We send all of the schools in Yellowstone County, as well as some schools in our neighboring counties a notice about the program, inviting them to preregister,” DeVerniero said. “That way we can get everyone scheduled in. We mainly cover the Yellowstone Valley area. I think the farthest school attending is about fifty-five miles from Billings. We get rural schools, where there are a lot of kids who are in 4-H and can celebrate what they already know and they are excited to share their knowledge with their friends. From the bigger schools in town, there is maybe one child out of seventy-five who knows anything about agriculture. We also get a lot of home schooling families that participate. It’s not too late to get signed up for this year if someone is interested.”
DeVerniero said that the 4th Grade Ag Education program was virtual only in 2020 due to Covid-19. Plans are in place for an in person event this year but the virtual option is still available for those who wish to check it out. Approximately fifteen hundred children are signed up to participate in person this year.
“The 4th Grade Ag Education program has been a local, hands on program from the beginning,” she said. “But we did what we could to share the program online last year. We blasted the information to all of the elementary schools in Montana that we could get contacts for, and we had over eight hundred unique visits to our web page. It is available online again this year, but we really do focus on keeping it local. We want those in person moments where we can see the kids’ eyes light up when they learn something new. They get to see how broad the agriculture spectrum is; it’s not just a cow.”
While preregistration is encouraged, anyone still interested in participating in the 4th Grade Ag Education program during the NILE next week should reach out to Bonnie DeVerniero at her email: firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
“We’ll find a way to squeeze them in,” she said. “Some of the children who attend have never seen a chicken before. Maybe they’ll learn if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows. Teaching them where their food comes from is so important for them and for the ag industry. I just love seeing their faces light up as they marvel at what they learn here.”
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