Makeover for teaching ag in classrooms

By Connie Sieh Groop
Freelance Ag Journalist

For those of us enmeshed in agriculture, it is frustrating to hear a young person state unequivocally, “Chocolate milk comes from brown cows” or “food comes from the grocery store.”

I try to take a deep breath and remember that many didn’t grow up doing chores and learning the cycle of life in barns and fields. Those unfortunate souls didn’t learn the wonder of what we witness every day.

As a writer and as a member of our local Chamber Ag Committee, I’ve met young people clueless about our industry. Each spring, we help host an Ag Fair where about 400 area fourth graders learned from local FFA students why their efforts to raise cattle produces the meat that goes into hamburgers. The stations show what the animals eat. While baby animals are cute and cuddly, the important message and example comes from the FFA members showing how this work takes place on their farms. The work on farms is important to the future for those who want to eat.

Some of the teachers used a program called Ag in the Classroom to prepare their students for the day. I was distressed last year when I heard the program dissolved after 30 years. I heard the efforts aren’t gone, just that a makeover of the program is in the works.

I talked with Tim Olsen, the current executive director for Ground Works Midwest based in Sioux Falls. Following the dissolution of South Dakota AITC this past March, Ground Works Midwest began as the coordinating agency for the program and holds the South Dakota AITC affiliation with the National Agriculture in the Classroom organization. The group is working with commodity groups and sponsors to develop a program that shares the value and importance of ag education across South Dakota.

“We want to provide strong leadership, more voices and relevant materials that fit into today’s teaching standards in a sustainable way,” Olsen said. “It’s gotten harder to bring outside information into classrooms. Working with those who are familiar with South Dakota’s teaching standards, modules have been developed to incorporate and embed valuable facts about our state’s biggest industry into the curriculum.”

GWM partners with businesses, organizations, schools and individuals to provide “cutting edge” garden-based education supplemental resources, teacher training, summer schools and camps. The goal by 2020 has the potential to impact the lives of 10,000 students, 500 educators, and 20 communities and neighborhoods.

Each teaching garden program is launched through a specific GWM process which includes building the leadership team from the ground up, involving the school and the neighborhood and community surrounding it. Olsen said 15 themed-gardens have incorporated South Dakota history, science, math, geography, technology and health into the teaching lessons nine months of the year.

As an example, Olsen explained the Down on the Farm School Teaching Theme Garden features corn, soybeans, wheat and sunflowers. Students explore the importance of sciences in providing food for a hungry world. These young people are affected by the principles of STEM education used in agriculture and food production.

“Students learn by measuring soil temperature, collecting data, graphing and interpreting the data,” Olsen said.

The initial push is to get pilot schools involved in eastern South Dakota. As funds and staff allow, Olsen said the program will expand. They are working on teacher training and hope to get ongoing college credit for teachers. The more resources, the farther the program can move. The more funding they get, the more staff they can have.

Since the meeting, Olsen said the group plans to piggyback ag information on the current South Dakota Road Trip used by many schools. GWM is recruiting four to six schools and will train teachers this fall. The pilot will start after the first of the year.

“The program will take advantage of technology and be interactive. It’s a new way of delivery that will be accessible anyplace in South Dakota,” Olsen said. “We want to make sure everything works. We plan to go statewide with the program in fall 2018. Teachers will be coached on how to use the program.”

“We are identifying solid partners, choosing the best advocates and finding funding streams to help expand the program. How much interest we have will dictate how fast we can move,” Olsen said. The group is serious about wanting input and feedback from teachers and parents. Contact the group at [email protected]; or call the GWM/SDAITC office, 605-275-9195.

In a world of change, I hope this new approach will grow and develop. I love the idea of the students planting seeds to learn about core subjects. We need to do all we can to share the message with the consumers of the future. Kudos to those involved!