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Luke English (30 months) helping his dad, Drew English, in last year's wheat harvest in Rosalia. Luke will be a sixth-generation farmer.
Photo by Ashley English

Wilbur-Ellis

PROFILES

Educating students about the wheat industry one week at a time

Kara Kaelber, founder of Wheat Week

June 2020
By Kevin Gaffney


Wheat Week has been an effective tool for educating fourth and fifth graders in Washington state about agriculture and, more specifically, the wheat industry, for 13 years. The mastermind behind this unique in-the-classroom instructional program is Kara Kaelber.

Born in southern Idaho, Kaelber spent her middle and high school years in Connecticut, where her mother had taken a job with Weight Watchers, a division of the H.J. Heinz Company. Kaelber began her college studies at the University of Florida. After her mother landed a job with Welch’s in Kennewick, Wash., Kaelber eagerly returned to the Pacific Northwest and attended Washington State University (WSU).

“I didn’t go back to Connecticut for 19 years,” said Kaelber. “I finally had to go back to see the fall colors again. The east coast just wasn’t the place for me. I prefer living in the western U.S.”

When Kaelber first arrived at WSU, she wanted to be a journalist. As many students do, she changed majors a couple times and ended up with a degree in humanities. Life circumstances entered into the picture with a new baby arriving not long after her graduation. Kaelber decided to obtain a teaching certificate so she would be able to spend each summer with her son.

Kaelber was a substitute teacher before becoming a classroom teacher in the Prosser School District in 2002. Always looking forward, she earned her master’s degree in education with an emphasis on administration at the same time that the Franklin Conservation District was hiring an educator for a program called Water on Wheels.

“This program was mostly about teaching students about nitrates in groundwater,” explained Kaelber. “Can you think of a more abstract concept to teach for kindergarten through 12th graders? I reevaluated and modified the program to fit the science standards in place at the time to make it appropriate for the classroom. It was critical that teachers would want it as part of their science curriculum.”

The funding for that program lasted about 18 months, long enough for it to gain a popular following from several school districts. The lessons on groundwater and soils were especially popular. By this time, the No Child Left Behind Act was being implemented, and science testing at the fifth grade level was being instituted. School districts were eager to add more science instruction to gear up for the testing program.

“The Franklin Conservation District was very supportive of my efforts. A board member, Chris Herron, suggested that I approach the Washington Grain Commission (WGC) about funding for my instructional program. I will admit, I was skeptical at first. But I decided to give it a try. I took some of our most popular lessons from the prior program, added other ones and renamed it Wheat Week.

“I presented it to the WGC in January 2007, and to my surprise, we were awarded full funding,” recalled Kaelber. “Then it hit me that I had to really get organized and design the entire program. It was like a dream come true that I then had to make into reality.”

The program was established and started in several schools in the fall of 2007. She had two educators working for her that first year, one based in Clarkston and the other in Ritzville. They taught a total of 17 Wheat Weeks the first year, reaching about 1,300 students.

Wheat Week consists of five daily, one-hour sessions in the classroom. The first day includes planting wheat seeds, which by day five, have sprouted up and grown two or three inches tall. The lessons are presented in a structured format. On day five, the students get to thresh wheat and chew the kernels to give them a hands-on perspective of the wheat-growing process. Part of their homework is to bring in labels of food products from home that contain wheat.

“That is an eye-opener for the students and the teachers,” said Kaelber. “Even in Eastern Washington, there is a surprising lack of knowledge about agriculture. We also have the students fill out thank-you postcards that are sent to area wheat farmers. We believe it’s important for the students to provide that positive feedback to the growers as part of our program.

“I can’t express enough gratitude to Glen Squires and the WGC for their continued financial support for our Wheat Week program. It simply would not be possible without them.”

Kaelber currently has 15 instructors that present Wheat Week. They are spread around the state, with eight near the I-5 corridor in western Washington and seven spread around central and Eastern Washington. The program reached more than 20,000 students in Washington last year.

The program includes PowerPoint presentations each day. The students each receive a “kernel journal” to write notes in, and there are oral presentations. Some teachers choose to test the students on the program; others do not.

The program is designed to fit the ever-changing science standards. Kaelber has had to redesign the program three times to keep it up to date. Kaelber requests feedback from the participating teachers and has about a 60 percent return. This helps her keep a high level of satisfaction among the teachers. They have a waiting list each year of schools wanting to participate in the program.

The students even perform some wheat DNA extraction and study the history of genetic wheat research done by Norman Borlaug and WSU scientist Orville Vogel. Their “green revolution” development of higher yielding, semidwarf wheat varieties and how they have helped save hundreds of millions of people from starvation worldwide really hits home with both the teachers and the students.

Kaelber’s favorite part of the program is when the students and the teachers fully understand and appreciate how important wheat and agriculture are to the state’s economy, the food supply in the U.S. and to feeding people all over the world.

The COVID-19 outbreak brought the program to a screeching halt this spring. Kaelber and her educators are now on hold, working on how best to move forward.

“We don’t know if most schools will open this fall,” said Kaelber. “If they do open, we aren’t sure we will be able to come into the classrooms. We are currently working on ideas and methods for making our presentations totally video-based. We may be able to offer live streaming lessons. At this point, we really don’t know how the program will be continued.”

Wheat Week takes up about 60 percent of Kaelber’s time at the Franklin Conservation District. She also has a Salmon In The Classroom program that teaches about the salmon resource and a Drain Ranger program that focuses on storm water runoff prevention. All three programs touch on the importance of the dams in the Columbia-Snake River System.

As if that isn’t enough, for the past couple of years, Kaelber has taken on an additional part-time position as program manager of the AgForestry Leadership Program. Now in it’s 43rd year, the program has been instrumental in helping to develop hundreds of leaders for agriculture, forestry and other natural resource-based industries. Kaelber and her Class 41 participants arrived back from Vietnam and Cambodia on Jan. 24, shortly before the COVID-19 situation exploded onto the scene.

The uncertainty of how Wheat Week will progress this fall has not dampened Kaelber’s enthusiasm for the program in any way.

“We will find a way to make this program work, one way or the other,” said Kaelber. “I have full confidence in our instructors to find effective ways to continue to educate the students about the science of agriculture in Washington state.”