Serious Cereal Science
Students will develop an appreciation for the extensive materials and career fields provided by agriculture, specifically as related to cereal grain production, processing, and consumption. Activities include playing a game in which students become agronomy specialists, mapping the top grain-producing states, and watching videos about careers related to grain production. Grades 6-8
Activity 1: Cereal Science
- Seed samples of rice, quinoa, corn, and wheat*
- Agronomy Specialist Fact Cards, 1 set per group*
- Grain Facts Information Board and Matching Cards, 1 set per group*
- Teacher Key
- Where My Cereal Grows Map, 1 laminated copy per group*
- Transparency markers (at least 4 different colors)
*These items are available in the Serious Cereal Science Kit which is available for purchase from agclassroomstore.com.
Activity 2: Careers in Agronomy
- Careers in Agriculture YouTube playlist
annual: a plant that completes its life cycle in just one year or one season
cereal: a plant from the grass family that produces grain that can be eaten
combine: a machine that cuts crops and separates the seeds from the rest of the plant, combining the harvesting, threshing, and winnowing processes
grain: the edible seed or seed-like fruit of grasses that are cereals (such as wheat, corn, and rice)
pseudocereal: non-grasses that are used in the same way as cereals, such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat
refined grain: has some portion of the grain removed (generally the bran and germ) in order to improve qualities like texture, taste, or shelf life
whole grain: contains all three edible parts (the endosperm, bran, and germ) in the same proportions as the harvested grain seed before it is processed
Did You Know?
- 9.3% of full-time jobs in the United States are related to agriculture.1
- The United States is the world’s leading producer and exporter of corn, producing 36 percent of the world’s supply.2
- Wheat is by far the world’s largest and most widely cultivated food crop: one-seventh of all farmland around the world is used for growing it.3
Background Agricultural Connections
Without the grains grown on American farms, the grocery store cereal shelves would be empty (as would other shelves). Consumers and business owners alike need farmers to produce the raw ingredients to fill factories, trucks, and stores, and to provide jobs along the way (graphic designers for packaging, engineers in processing, food scientists, etc.). In fact, the person who designs the box for Tony the Tiger’s Frosted Flakes® owes his or her livelihood to the fact that someone grows corn. About one out of every eleven Americans (or 9%) rely on agriculture for employment. It’s hard to imagine an empty cereal aisle at your favorite grocery store, and it’s easy to forget that all of the cereals came from a farmer’s field.
The grains that occupy the top of the ingredients lists on our cereal boxes are the seeds of grasses, and they have been an important part of the human diet for thousands of years. Around the world, early agriculture included the domestication and cultivation of grasses for the grains they produce. Wheat was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, rice in the river valleys of ancient China, and corn in what is today central Mexico. Early agriculturalists in the Andes Mountains of South America did not domesticate grass for grain, but rather a broadleaf plant called quinoa (keen wah), which is more closely related to beets and spinach than to grasses. Quinoa produces seeds that can be cooked and eaten like grains, and is often grouped as a pseudocereal. Today, quinoa and other pseudocereals are growing in popularity due to their high nutrient content, their ability to grow in conditions not suited to true cereals, and rising demand for wheat-free grain alternatives. Quinoa even cooks up into a tasty, hot breakfast cereal.
Although they are all annual grains, wheat, corn, and rice require different growing conditions to produce a bountiful crop. Rice requires a consistently warm growing season and constantly moist soil. Rice fields are often flooded to prevent weed competition. Corn also grows best in areas that have hot summers, although it can tolerate much lower temperatures than rice. Corn needs fertile soils and regular rain or irrigation throughout the season. In contrast, wheat is a cool season crop that requires less water than rice or corn. Wheat grows during the cool, moist spring and matures best during a warm, dry summer. Quinoa is uniquely suited to growing at high altitudes and can tolerate poor soils. High summer temperatures will reduce yields. Over time, plant breeders working together with farmers and agronomists have vastly improved the productivity of these grains and the range of growing conditions in which they can thrive. Less work has been done to improve pseudocereals like quinoa, making this an area with great potential for future plant breeders and farmers as well as for engineers, food scientists, and others to develop methods for processing, utilizing, and marketing these new crops.
Most grains are harvested mechanically with a combine after the plants have begun to dry in the field. It is important for grains to be kept dry during harvest to prevent sprouting. Grains grown on a commercial scale are then sent to a mill where they will be cleaned, ground, and further processed to produce a wide variety of products. All whole grains contain three basic parts: endosperm, germ, and bran. When grains are milled, these parts are often separated. Whole grain products contain all three of these components in their original proportions. White flour and white rice have had the germ and bran removed, which contain the majority of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants found in the grain. These refined grains tend to store longer and have a sweeter taste. They are often enriched to return some of the nutritional content that is lost in the refining process. Corn is the most processed grain. Corn-derived ingredients can be found in thousands of products ranging from snack foods to plastics. Many people are employed in the processing, quality control, distribution, and sales of grains.
Just as grains were foundational in the of advent agriculture thousands of years ago, they continue to play a central role in agriculture and food security today. Corn, rice, and wheat provide more than half of the calories consumed by people worldwide. The science of cereal science is serious business! Students interested in a career in cereal science are required to study basic science education: biology, mathematics, and physics. Further study in chemistry, food processing, engineering, microbiology, nutrition, milling, or plant science offers students a wide range of opportunities for careers in cereal processing, food science, foods and nutrition, organic chemistry, biochemistry, or agriculture. Education in the aforementioned field of cereal science may include two-year technical degrees, four-year bachelor of science degrees, or postgraduate degrees.
- Ask students if they can tell you what the main ingredient in most breakfast cereals is. (grain, such as wheat, corn, rice, etc.)
- Ask students to brainstorm all the careers they can think of that are related to the production of breakfast cereals and list them on the board. If needed, use the following prompts to help students brainstorm:
- "Where are cereal grains produced?" (on a farm). "What kind of careers are found on farms?" (farmers, machine operators, truck drivers, mechanics, etc.)
- "What kind of careers are available to help farmers produce their crops?" (engineers design machines that make farming more efficient, scientists help develop more effective varieties of plants and seeds, accountants help farmers keep financial records to run more efficient businesses, etc.)
- "Once a farmer produces the grain, where does it go next?" (to a processing facility; for example, wheat is sent to a mill where it is ground into flour so it can be made into various cereals and other foods) "What kind of careers are found in processing facilities? (food scientist, nutritionist, mechanic, food transportation specialist, etc.)
- Once your students have finished brainstorming and are beginning to see the many careers involved in simply producing their breakfast cereal, tell them that in this lesson they will be exploring more careers like these.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Cereal Science
- Divide your students into groups of four.
- Distribute to each group: one bag of each seed sample (corn, rice, quinoa, and wheat), one set of Agronomy Specialist Fact Cards and one Grain Facts Information Board and Matching Cards.
- Challenge students to identify the seed samples. Once they’ve identified the seeds, instruct students to distribute one Agronomy Specialist Fact Card to each member of the group.
- The fact cards will make each student an “agronomy specialist” in corn, rice, quinoa, or wheat. Each student should read his or her fact card carefully. Students may take notes or use transparency markers to highlight important information—after reading their cards, they should be able to act like specialists! Let students re-identify their seeds at this time if needed.
- Students should mix up or shuffle the Grain Facts Matching Cards and then place them upside down in a pile.
- Instruct students to take turns picking a card and trying to match the card to the appropriate place on the Grain Facts Information Board. If they do not know where to match the card, they should consult the group’s specialist in the relevant crop. The specialist may respond from memory, read his or her fact card, or reference notes to help determine a match.
- The activity is finished when the information board is complete. Teachers may wish to post the answer key at the end of the activity and allow students to self-check their answers.
- Provide each group with a laminated Where My Cereal Grows Map and transparency markers of four different colors. Using their knowledge as specialists, students should place a colored dot in each of the major grain producing states. (Instructions are on the map.)
Activity 2: Careers in Agronomy
- Access Utah Agriculture in the Classroom’s Careers in Agriculture YouTube playlist.
- Before showing the videos, cue students to listen for information related to cereal science careers, required education, and working environments. You may want to write these cues on the board as reference.
- Show the following videos to students: #1 Wheat Breeder, #20 Cereal Chemist, #34 Agronomist.
- Ask students to Think, Pair, Share with a classmate regarding the career information requested in Step 1. Via a class discussion, make a list of careers, education, and working environments on the whiteboard.
The game “Pit” (commercial card game) could be used to demonstrate how agricultural commodities such as grains are traded. This game works best when played with 4–6 players and can be obtained in department stores or online.
After the matching activity has been completed once, take away the Agronomy Specialist Fact Cards and see which group can correctly match the items in the fastest time.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Grains, produced by plants in the grass family, are staple agricultural crops grown across the United States and around the world.
- There are a wide variety of careers available for those who specialize in areas related to grain production, such as plant breeding, chemistry, and agronomy.