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Our students are growing their understanding of “Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy Outcomes” as we dig deep into “Science, Technology, Engineering & Math.” As an educator, I am constantly looking for applicable strategies that inspire my students to learn core concepts through agriculture. Projects like our pumpkin growing contest, breeding new cultivars of flowers, hydroponics, and embryology studies have helped my students apply the skills taught in everyday lessons and gain an interest in—and appreciation for—agriculture.
At the beginning of summer 2018, I gave my future students five seeds of a small bush variety of pumpkin, with a list of categories that they could enter a pumpkin growing contest to be judged in September. The contest included categories such as photography of pumpkin flowers, pests, and fruit development. Students could also enter numerous other categories like the largest pumpkin, smallest, and strangest shape. My goal was to encourage the students to begin their own mini-adventure into agriculture before they had me as their teacher, by having a small research project that motivated them to read articles, identify insects, and problem solve all on their own during the summer. I wanted the students to become familiar with the challenges, successes, and rewards that agriculture can bring to them so we could continue that conversation in class.
During the summer of 2018, I was reading about mimulus. This plant can develop from seed to bloom in just 35 days. We began a plant breeding experience in August, 2018, on the second day of school. We planted several seeds, and in 31 days we had two plants blooming! They were quickly joined by many more in the days that followed. We studied the growth needs of mimulus, identified their traits, linked nutrient issues, and captured pests. While we did this, we read articles (language arts), learned about lifecycles of pests (science), and began our adventure into understanding the genetics of mimulus. After 17 days of pretending to be bees and carefully pollinating the plants, then marking them with paint indicators to identify the parents of the cross, we were able to harvest our first seeds. Our own crosses! To a young student, that is exciting! Those seeds were then grown and studied, photographs were taken, and plants were assigned numbers so we could track their heredity. Students were able to begin assigning traits as dominant or recessive, or even co-dominant. They identified goals common in the agriculture industry such as breeding for dwarf plants, trailing plants, or quick-flowering, along with looking for aesthetic traits such as colors, patterns, and scent. They defined goals that would take multiple generations to achieve. They were able to successfully grow out and study three generations before the end of the school year in May of 2019. Flowering plants, created by the students, were presented as gifts to the students’ parents in May. Seeds were carefully labeled and stored. When fall arrived, my new students were able to see the work created by the previous class. They chose plants’ traits that they wanted to work with, chose seeds that should contain those identified traits, and began a whole new set of experiments that will take us through May of 2020. Charts have been created to track these traits, math has been applied to determine possible outcomes, language arts become key as students research and discover and communicate their ideas, and engineering is a continuous necessity as they use hydroponic systems with changing needs; mimulus have really made our learning real. We are currently working on the scented trait which is rather tricky to isolate, but we are up for the challenge!
Our plants started using a considerable amount of water and time as they developed. We needed a solution to really make this viable in the classroom. Just like a farmer, the students needed to maximize their resources. They chose to create miniature hydroponic systems for all of the mimulus. Hydroponics brings its own set of challenges, with needed knowledge and skills. The first challenge that we had to work out as a class was how much fertilizer to add to the new systems. This helped students learn about macro and micronutrients required by plants in order to grow, maintain fruit, and be healthy. As we researched together, we found the ideal amount of nitrogen needed for mimulus was 150 ppm. So, what does 150 ppm mean? This singular question brought us to some great learning opportunities in math as we began studying the labels on different fertilizers, applying multiplication and division skills, and finally arriving at which fertilizers we needed, as well as how much we would need to use in our constant feeding hydroponic systems. We discussed what happens in a closed system like hydroponics and in an open system like a field, with nutrients and the possible effects fertilizers could have on our environment. Our plants responded amazingly well to the amount of nitrogen they were receiving based on our calculations and really grew fast and stayed healthy.
We reached out to FloraNova, the breeder of our mimulus, with questions and began a back-and-forth dialogue with professionals about our own goals. We received pictures of FloraNova’s greenhouses and operations and also pictures of their mimulus plants. This sparked even more curiosity and gave more intensity to return to mimulus for more learning opportunities.
This mimulus project did not end in the classroom. I taught the entire teaching faculty at our school how mimulus plants can be grown and applied to each of their own specific grade levels, K-6. Many teachers in my school now use mimulus as a focus for their inheritance unit. We now have multiple teachers in our district beginning their own adventure in breeding new cultivars of mimulus, and my students happily choose seeds to send to them. The students themselves have made educational videos explaining to other distant students how to pollinate flowers, grow seeds, and take care of the plants. The students are now advocating for agricultural literacy!
For the last few years when spring rolls around, we get the privilege to learn about the development of chicks. A major part of our curriculum is working with fractions and decimals, and we extend that to include percentages. Research has shown that eggs should lose approximately 11% of their weight during incubation, signifying that the humidity was correct during the incubation process. To achieve this goal, students built an incubator out of an unused cooler. Students were divided into five different groups to work on the various engineering components of the incubator, using their creative skills to solve them. Those groups included a group that designed an automatic egg turner, one that worked on humidity, another on temperature, a focus on how we could tell the internal temperature of an egg, and another on the body design. Once the incubator was built, we ran tests, checked to see if the temperature was stable, and determined whether we could adjust the humidity levels both up and down. Fresh eggs were numbered and weighed, and charts were created to show approximate egg weights during incubation so we could check if the eggs were losing weight too fast, too little, or just right. The application of math and engineering needed for this project really pushed students to maximize their resources, skills, and collaborative time together looking for solutions.
When the chicks hatched, it was the beginning of yet another agricultural adventure! Each and every day I look for the next opportunity to share agriculture with my students and bring joy to the learning process. Each day, another adventure awaits, another problem is presented, and we get the joy of working it out together. Agriculture is our culture.