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Ag mets STEM at Almira Elementary School

July 2017
By Trista Crossley


Anybody involved in agriculture knows it is a highly technical field, so it will come as no surprise that the industry is fertile ground for STEM education.

STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific areas—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and focuses on an interdisciplinary, applied approach. Susan Douglas, the kindergarten through fifth-grade math and science teacher at Almira Elementary School in Almira, Wash., wanted a way to show students how this knowledge could be used in real life. She found the answer just about as close to home as was possible—Douglas and her husband are also wheat farmers.

“I think of all the different things my husband has to do to do his job,” she said, pointing out that to farm successfully, farmers—and the people and industries that support them—draw on a wealth of technical knowledge, most of which is based in STEM. “I can’t think of a more perfect match than agriculture. These students sit in the midst of a constant experiment. Farming is an experiment. Everything is always changing, such as the weather. And then there’s the application. How do we interact with our natural resources to reduce our impact and make things better? Farmers are doing that all the time.”

When Douglas broached the idea of doing an agricultural STEM field day, the school administration liked the idea and gave it a green light. That idea turned into a half day event last January. Regional companies such as CPS and AgLink did presentations on soil science and GIS mapping, while area farmers talked about growing wheat and the equipment used in raising cattle. That half day was a resounding success.

“The presenters hadn’t done anything like this before. The kids were excited about the presentations and very engaged. The community response was so positive that those presenters immediately started talking about how cool it would be to bring the kids out so they could experience the application of these things in the field,” Douglas said. In late May, 110 kindergartners through eighth-grade students took STEM learning from the classroom and out into the field.

The school set up four rotations of approximately 50 minutes each. One rotation focused on the wheat industry, from planting to harvesting to marketing. Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ (WAWG) Vice President Marci Green and WAWG Outreach Coordinator Lori Williams explained where the wheat grown in Washington goes and what products it is used for.

The school brought in a sprayer, combine and bucket tractor to a field across the street from the school for another rotation, and representatives from the John Deere dealer in Coulee City explained how the equipment was used. The students were able to climb on the equipment (under supervision, of course).

A third rotation was at a local farm where students learned about rotating animals, such as chickens and cows, through different tracts to reduce impacts to the soil and manage weeds and disease. The students also learned how chickens help break up manure, which is then absorbed into the soil faster.

The final rotation involved invasive and noxious weeds and soil sampling with representatives from CPS and Hefty.

“At first, some kids didn’t want to take part, but they were the first on the equipment, the first to put their hands in the dirt,” Douglas said. “They thought they had nothing to learn, but ended up being highly engaged.”

While an ag learning day for students in a rural community surrounded by agriculture might seem unnecessary, Douglas said that isn’t the case. A fair number of her students’ immediate families aren’t involved in agriculture, and the students aren’t really aware of how the industry works.

“I ask my students about what kind of things are grown out here, and they aren’t really sure,” she said. “We assume they know. That’s where we make our first mistake, and we miss opportunities.”

WAWG’s Green agreed with Douglas. During her presentation, she asked each group how many of them lived on a farm, and only about 20 percent of the students raised their hands. And even for those who do live on a farm, they may only see and understand a small part of the industry.

“Much of the information we provided is new for the farm kids too,” Green said. “They might know what a wheat plant looks like, or what a combine does, but they probably don’t know how much of our wheat is exported, or why it is important to maintain all of our transportation options.”

Green and her husband grow wheat and bluegrass seed on her family farm in Spokane County. Every day, they utilize biology, chemistry, physics, technology and math to raise a successful crop without damaging the environment or depleting natural resources.

“A solid background in these STEM fields will give the farmers of the future every opportunity to maximize the productivity of their operations and give U.S. agriculture a competitive advantage in the global marketplace,” she said.

Douglas hopes that by exposing her students, even kindergartners, to agriculture and all the skills it uses, she can get them thinking about future possibilities, especially when it comes to technology.

“Our world is different. Technology needs to be integrated in a meaningful way so students see that it has a purpose. You can play video games, but what’s the real application of that technology? Why is it important for kids to have computer skills that are meaningful as they go through school? Technology in agriculture is not going away. The industry will still need mechanics and such, but if you can take your computer skills and can apply them in an agricultural field, you will never want for a job.”

Douglas is already planning more ag STEM days for next year.

Photo captions, starting from top:

Jim Baergen from the Coulee City John Deere dealership talks about farming equipment to a group of sixth- and seventh-graders. Photo by Amy McArthur.

CPS’s Jason Evers (right) helps Dylan Peterson (blue shirt) take a soil sample while Cade Carstensen (red shirt) looks on. This rotation was part of an event at Almira Elementary School, where educators and community members used agriculture to teach principles of STEM. Photo by Amy McArthur.

Marci Green, vice president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, talks about how farmers grow wheat in Washington and what products it is used in to a group of kindergartners through second-graders, including Akira Luczak (standing at front of class). Photo by Amy McArthur.