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Programs meld farming, science

‘We’ve got to feed the world,’ agriculture educator says by Brenda Bernet | November 5, 2014 at 3:55 a.m.

Students interested in farming need to know how to drive and fix tractors, but many also need to know how to operate sophisticated GPS-based systems that can record crop yields and control how much fertilizer, herbicide or seed to apply to a field.

And some of the nation's leading agriculture companies need scientists who understand farming, as well as genetics, biochemistry, safety and food preparation.

"We've got to feed the world," said Marion Fletcher, who oversees agricultural education for the Arkansas Department of Career Education. "It takes more than somebody to farm the land."

The need for agriculture students to have strong backgrounds in math and science has led the department to work with eight school districts to start a new model for agricultural education, Fletcher said. The pilot program began this year, and the agriculture teachers involved will offer open houses to other teachers and school districts in the spring.

The program is the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education, and it was developed in 2007 through the National Council of Agricultural Education with $1.4 million provided by 11 states, said Dan Jansen, the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education project director, who is based in Oregon.

The state's department provided grants of about $30,000 for each of the teachers in the pilot program to outfit their classrooms with equipment more commonly found in a science lab, including microscopes, dissecting kits, scales and beakers, Fletcher said.

"It brings out the science," Fletcher said.

Science has been a foundation of farming for years. Farmers need to understand soil, plants, water and breeding, said Andy Guffey, assistant director of education and Ag-in-the-Classroom for the Arkansas Farm Bureau in Little Rock.

But over the past 20 years, farming has become a more precise operation as farmers work to increase their productivity and efficiency, Guffey said.

Chicken farmers use smartphones to monitor and control the temperatures and air quality in poultry houses, Guffey said. Cattle farmers use genetics to determine what types of cattle to breed to produce more tender cuts of meat or animals that have calmer demeanors, Guffey said.

Farmers raising crops crunch numbers to determine how much water, fertilizer and seed they need for optimum production, Guffey said.

When agriculture students graduate, "they've got to be able to calculate those things," he said. "You have to be able to interpret what comes out. If you don't know what you're looking at, it's a whole bunch of numbers."

Companies like DuPont Pioneer, which produces seed, have a high demand for scientists trained in specialties often applied to medicine, including genetics and biotechnology, Guffey said.

"We need more kids that do that," he said.

About 25,000 students statewide take agriculture classes in 206 schools that prepare them for careers related to farming, food and natural resources, Fletcher said. They take classes on animals, plants, soil, natural resources, mechanics, horses and bees, he said. Some programs have greenhouses.

Students often participate in competitive events and leadership programs through Future Farmers of America, a national organization with state and local chapters.

About 220 students at Paris High School in Logan County take at least one agriculture class, said Jason Binz, an agriculture education teacher there.

Agriculture classes often now include laboratories where students apply what they learn in other classes, including math and biology, Binz said.

He said little had changed in agriculture education between the time he graduated from Paris High in 2001 and then returned as a teacher in the fall of 2008. Binz said he hopes the emphasis on science through the Curriculum for Agriculture Science Education will change the perception that agriculture courses are easy.

Roughly 40 students are taking the two new Curriculum for Agriculture Science Education animal science classes, he said. The courses still include traditional aspects such as feeding and caring for animals, but high school students also are involved in some projects and labs that Binz took as a college student at Arkansas Tech University.

"It's a total change of how to look at agriculture," Binz said. "They get a lot thrown at them."

In about a week, students in Binz's animal science class will begin a biosecurity lab that will involve them taking swabs of their mouths and of pens, feeders and boots, he said. They will put the specimens in petri dishes to see what bacteria and viruses grow to learn about how germs spread.

"The big thing with farmers is keeping their facilities clean," Binz said. "It's showing that in a hands-on-based project."

The National Council for Agricultural Education developed the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education in 2007 as a way to increase the connections between agriculture and academics, Jansen said.

"A lot of times our teachers aren't prepared to make those meaningful connections," Jansen said. "They'll present a great lesson, but it doesn't hit that science so that kids understand science better."

The council, based in Indianapolis, is a nonprofit led by a board of directors that represents a variety of national organizations related to agriculture. Those organizations also contribute funding.

The project to step up agriculture instruction involved developing year-long courses that teach math, science and technology through the lens of different specialties of agriculture, Jansen said. Teachers receive the curriculum and materials for free after attending a two-week intensive training session during the summer.

The curriculum is updated every three years, he said. Courses are aligned with the educational goals of Advanced Placement, Common Core State Standards and nationally developed science standards known as the Next Generation Science Standards.

The courses are being taught by more than 900 teachers in 38 states, and the project has drawn corporate sponsorships that include Cargill, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere.

The Lake Hamilton School District in Garland County has one of the largest agriculture education programs in the state with 300 students involved in grades eight through 12, and the community has a long history in agriculture, Principal Kirk Nance said. He said he liked the courses developed for the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education because they teach students skills they will need in jobs after high school.

Many students don't have farming backgrounds, but by the end of the course, they will be able to produce a management guide that details the feed, facilities and veterinary care for different breeds of animals, said Jason Braziel, who is teaching the new animal science course at that school.

In the Springdale School District, Kristin Pennington teaches an entry-level Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education course to ninth-graders at Lakeside and George junior high schools.

Pennington also is helping students apply what they know about measurements and electric circuits to lessons on welding, a trade that interests freshman Addison Elliott, 14. Elliott said it's easy for him to see connections between agriculture and math and science.

"You need to know angles and how the welder works," Elliott said. "You learn precise cuts."

Metro on 11/05/2014

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