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Through project-based learning, students examine fruit and vegetable farms to discover the amount of manual labor required to plant, grow, and harvest some of our food. They research the business economics of farm management, the plant life cycle, and the requirements and challenges faced in reducing manual labor through mechanization or robotics. Students present their findings to an agricultural engineer to begin developing a solution to farm labor shortages.
Milestone 1: Entry Event
Milestone 2: Research
Milestone 3: Planning and Development
Milestone 4: Final Presentation
machine: an apparatus having several parts and performing a specific function or task
robot: a machine that can replicate human movements and functions automatically
Robots Wanted! is a Project-Based Learning (PBL) plan. PBL is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.1 A quality PBL experience requires seven essential elements.
Farm Labor and Mechanization
We live in a highly mechanized and sophisticated world. While agriculture has seen numerous advances in technology to decrease labor in the farm-to-fork process of food in the last 100 years, there is still a large number of processes that are performed manually by skilled laborers.
Fruit and vegetable crops in the United States are among the most labor-intensive.4 Fruit and vegetable producers are highly dependent on large crews of skilled laborers, especially during harvest when precise timing is critical. An early or delayed harvest can significantly decrease the quality of the food product. Many challenges exist for farm producers to secure the labor necessary to successfully grow and harvest the food that we eat. A few challenges include:
Technological innovations in agriculture abound. Tractors, trucks, farm implements, and harvesters have already made big steps in some areas of agriculture to decrease manual labor and increase the capacity of farmers to produce food for a growing population. These examples represent machines. They repeat predetermined motions and cannot respond to changes in the external environment without an operator intervening. Robots can perform repeated motions just like a machine, but can also be programmed or given specific instructions and scenarios. For example, a robot can be programmed to only pick a strawberry when it is a specific size and color.
There are still many areas of agriculture where technology has not yet surpassed the precision of human labor. Fruit and vegetable farming is especially labor intensive. Many of the foods we purchase regularly in the produce aisle were planted and harvested by hand, requiring large crews of workers. The quest for more mechanization has already begun, but challenges exist. Some crops do not ripen all at once, so a worker's trained eye and hand are necessary to look for precise coloring and firmness to indicate readiness to pick. Another challenge is to create a machine that picks the fruit or vegetable without damaging the bush, vine, or tree it was grown on.
At the beginning of this project, students are introduced to key content using a compelling situation that provides context and serves as a catalyst for an authentic problem or challenge. In Project-Based Learning (PBL), this authentic problem/challenge is referred to as an "Entry Event." Students use the Entry Event to initiate inquiry by reflecting on their prior knowledge of the key content, generating questions that they need to know the answers to in order to successfully complete the project or process that will solve the problem, and identifying what their next steps might be to answer their questions. These questions are used in an ongoing way throughout the project to track learning and guide inquiry. While students may have several questions, one driving question needs to be agreed upon that, when answered, should address the initial solution. Refer to Milestone 1 for Entry Event procedures.
In PBL, projects are organized into milestones. Each milestone represents a significant stage of the project. Click on each milestone below to access instructional procedures.
Milestone 1: Entry Event (approximately 1 day)
Milestone 2: Research (approximately 3 days)
Milestone 3: Planning and Development (approximately 2 days)
Milestone 4: Final Presentation (approximately 1 day)
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation:
As a final wrap-up, review and summarize the following key points:
We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!
To further support Milestone 4 complete the Robots in High-Tech Farming lesson to explore more applications for robotics in agriculture and to give students an opportunity to program a robot in class.
To further support Milestone 2, consider the following Crash Course Economics videos to improve students' background knowledge about business and economics:
Have students learn about Harper Adams University's Hands Free Hectare project where they have successfully grown and harvested a hectare (2.471 acres) of cereal crops without humans entering the field by using autonomous machinery and remote agronomy. Discuss if this could be possible with fruit and vegetable food crops. Why or why not?
To help students gain more knowledge and appreciation for the farmworkers that often grow and harvest our food, read some elementary story books to students such as Harvesting Hope, Migrant, Radio Man, Side By Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, or First Day in Grapes.
National Center for Agricultural Literacy