State Teacher Award 2021
The national agriculture literacy themes Agriculture and the Environment; and Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy enrich science curriculum and enhance instruction in both my Mission to Mars class and my Eighth Grade Integrated Science classes. With the themes as a guide, students develop agricultural literacy on their path to science proficiency and galactic citizenship.
Mission to Mars
Mission to Mars is a class I created after being selected in 2019 to be part of the first cohort to attend NASA's SpaceBound program at the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, UT. With five other teachers from around the nation, I lived “in sim” for five days. I wore a spacesuit whenever I left the habitat, I drove the rover to collect soil samples, and the only greens I ate were grown in the onsite greenhouse. I gained a strong appreciation for agriculture on Earth and a strong desire to share my experience with my students. With approval from my school administration and funding from two grants—Utah STEM Action Center and Utah Agriculture in the Classroom—the Mission to Mars class launched in 2020.
Agriculture and the Environment takes on a new meaning when the environment one is studying is not on Earth. In the Mission to Mars class, students compare the Earth and Martian environments, identify the factors that allow life to survive on Earth that do not exist on Mars, and research ways to modify the Martian environment so that life—plants and animals—could live there.
Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy is important because these things sustain life; where there is no food, there are no people. This is especially pertinent to my Mission to Mars students. In class, we plan and execute a simulated Mission to Mars. On Mars, as on Earth, one must eat to survive. And, like on Earth, agriculture supplies the food necessary for survival. However, unlike on Earth, Martian colonists will not be able to go to the local store to get dinner; they must grow it themselves. So, in the Mission to Mars class, students develop an understanding of and appreciation for the incredibly important role of agriculture in a Martian society. As they do so, their Earth agricultural literacy also increases.
Developing a sustainable agricultural option on Mars was one of the students' primary objectives. To this end, they constructed a small greenhouse and performed agriculture-related experiments. For example, one student combined various ratios of Martian simulated soil with Earth soil to see which combination was best for wheat growth. Another student worked on a strawberry hydroponics project. Yet another student used a sun lamp to simulate Martian radiation levels; Mars radiation is twice that of Earth, and she wanted to see how increased radiation levels affected plant growth.
Eighth Grade Integrated Science
In my 8th grade science classes students are introduced to the two national agricultural literacy themes during the second quarter when we use an agricultural lens to investigate the effect of per-capita consumption of natural resources on Earth's systems and evaluate various farming solutions on their potential to increase output and reduce impact. [Refer to the lesson plan I submitted.] This leap into agriculture whets their appetites for the upcoming quarter.
Plants are magic. Watching a seed transform from a hard, tiny kernel to a vibrant, living, growing organism awes even the most hardened eighth grader. Our entire third quarter curriculum is centered around agriculture. We begin with pea seeds and end with harvesting pea pods. As we plant, care for, monitor, and eventually harvest our peas, our agricultural literacy and science proficiency increase. The theme Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber, & Energy makes the lessons about photosynthesis, cellular respiration, chemical reactions, and conservation of matter relevant and applicable. Agriculture and the Environment gives context to our study of ecosystems and global climate change.
When I learned that the seventh grade College and Career Awareness (CCA) curriculum included a unit on agriculture, I volunteered to connect the CCA teacher with the teen 4-H Ambassador who lived in my home. The ambassador spent the day teaching every seventh grader in the school the connection between plants and animals and food, fiber, and energy. Eager to increase my 8th grade students' agricultural literacy, I solicited her to give her lesson to my students as well.
In the pre-COVID era, when excursions and field trips were still an option, I took my inner-city 8th graders to a dairy farm where they heard, felt, saw and smelled the reality of plant and animals for food, fiber and energy. Most were awed by the automated milking machines, some almost got lost in the corn field, and everyone wanted to bring the calves home on the bus. I saw “aha” moments on multiple faces as they learned that milk comes from breathing, bawling critters called cows; silage is a careful, complex chemical mixture of nutritionally rich ingredients; and farmers use state of the art technology in everything from milking machines to crop planting. For many, it was the first time they had been on a farm. For all of them it was a powerful experience.
Vision for the Future
Thanks to grant monies from the Utah STEM Action Center and Utah Agriculture in the Classroom, and a generous budget allotment by my school board, I plan to purchase a large (20' x 12' x 8') greenhouse to be erected on school property. The greenhouse will open a floodgate of agricultural options for my school. Clearly this will benefit my Mission to Mars and 8th grade science classes; however, the flow of agricultural literacy will not be limited to my students. We are a kindergarten through 9th grade campus, and every teacher on site will have access to plant “magic.” The greenhouse will also make possible my dream of a botany/horticulture class and will generate fundraising and business opportunities for our students.
When my husband (a born-and-raised city boy) and I started looking for our first home, I told him I had to have land. “I am sure it is possible to raise great kids in the city, but I do not know how to do it,” I said. “I must have land.” I insisted on land—we live on an acre in the middle of a city of 40,000 people where we raise pigs, chickens, and sheep and have a small orchard and a big garden—because I know the value of agriculture in raising a family. I also know the value of agriculture in education, which is why I currently implement agriculture literacy themes and why I continually seek ways to expand my students' exposure to agriculture. Agricultural literacy increases science proficiency and enhances galactic citizenship.