Connecting Ag to the Classroom
The roles were reversed this June as a group of 29 teachers came together in Fargo, ND, and became students once again with the goal of better understanding biotechnology and its role in agriculture, and gaining insight on better connecting their students to the agricultural field.Science and agriculture teachers from across the region participated in the Exploring Biotech and Biofuels workshop sponsored, in part, by the North Dakota Corn Utilization Council and held at North Dakota State University. The professional-development event taught hands-on lessons that teachers could use to connect their students to the expansive world of agriculture.
“Only about four percent of students in the country take ag science classes, but 96 percent take biology,” says Jane Hunt, director of education for EducationProjects.org. Hunt was one of the educators who led the two-day training. “So, we really focus on biology, chemistry, and environmental science teachers to try and get them to think about how food production plays a role in the normal types of science that they’re already teaching. Things like photosynthesis, respiration, fermentation, all of those things that are in the curriculum, but they don’t always think about teaching through food-production lenses.”
In addition to gaining insights into corn and soybean production in North Dakota and Minnesota, the teachers learned how to make biodiesel from vegetable oil. They later tested the homemade fuel in toy boats. Participants visited the National Agricultural Genotyping Center to learn more about DNA testing. They traveled to an ethanol plant to see how fermentation helps produce fuel. Attendees were also exposed to DNA extraction protocols.
Application to Education
Wyatt Pugh teaches 11th-grade science courses at Moorhead Highschool. Pugh feels that it is important for students to be learning more about biotech and biofuels because these students are the next generation of science professionals.
“I find biotech and biofuels to be incredibly interesting. I remember taking courses that addressed these topics in college, so I knew that the topics offered in the workshop would relate well to my courses like Chemistry in the Community and Botany,” shared Pugh. “I will certainly be bringing this curriculum back to my classroom, especially the biodiesel lab. This is the fuel of the future and a hands-on lab like this has the potential to get students interested in career fields where they can play a major role in advancing this important technology.”
For Madison Milbrath, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] Educator at North Dakota’s Gateway to Science in Bismarck, ND, this workshop provided a chance to bring hands-on, relatable connections to students of all ages.
“Since we focus on hands-on activities, a lot of the curriculum we have been given in this workshop can be quickly implemented for our students at Gateway to Science,” said Milbrath. “Whether it is making biofuels from vegetable oils, or it is taking a look at bioinformatics and DNA sequencing and mapping, the lessons are a great fit for us and will help us to connect especially with our older students who don’t often get a lot of additional STEM opportunities.”
North Dakota Corn Utilization Council Executive Director (NCUC) Jean Henning shares that NDCUC is happy to support this workshop and help bring the teacher training together, in part, because of its importance to the future of North Dakota agriculture.
“There’s a place for this in North Dakota to reach our youth with the message of ag science; ag-biotech; and learning not only about what our farmers do and the science and technology involved in farming today, but also encouraging students to pursue those careers that then support the agriculture and farming industry,” Henning says.
Hunt says that getting students exposed to and excited about agriculture will have a downstream effect.
“I’m hoping students will be inspired by their teachers, and we’re hoping to inspire those teachers through this workshop to begin to solve some of the problems in agriculture,” Hunt explains. “How do we increase yield yet keep our water quality safe, and how do we maintain our soil fertility but get the minerals in the water and the fertilizer in the plants that we need them to have?”
“Agriculture is such a prevalent part of our lives,” Milbrath states. “Everything we do is touched in some way by a STEM-related field. Whether that be the science and engineering that makes something possible, or the technology, innovation, and application that makes it accessible or efficient. When I leave here, I hope I can take these labs and experiments and help students at North Dakota’s Gateway to Science make those connections and fuel deeper interest in STEM and agriculture-related fields.”
Getting students better connected to agriculture is one outcome, but another goal is encouraging the next generation to consider agriculture as a career path.
“Agriculture is high tech and high talent, and we’re looking for the best and brightest as well as people who want to work in the field,” Hunt says. “The beauty of it is that a lot of these jobs that are available careers have both a technical aspect as well as a hands-on field aspect, so you’re not stuck in one place or another depending on what career you’re in.”
“The North Dakota Corn Utilization Council Board has a vision for the next generation and even the generation after that,” Henning explains. “So, through all our programs, we want to get in touch with our youth and get them educated, involved, and excited about agriculture and ensure that there is a future and a legacy for the next generation of corn producers.”
Spending two summer days in a classroom may not seem fun for everyone, but the lessons learned will, hopefully, yield positive results, and generous sponsors are a big part of that success. Sponsorships from the North Dakota Corn Utilization Council, North Dakota Soybean Council, North Dakota Agriculture in the Classroom, and Minnesota Corn made this workshop free and accessible to participating educators and provided materials for them to bring back to their classrooms so students can dive into the labs and lessons as well.