Integrating agriculture into STEM subjects in schools: Inumerable flow on benefits possible.

We recently published the article “Why does agriculture deserve the attention in doesn’t have?” and had some great comments we couldn’t help but share with you from one of the community – Glenn (@Glenn_soilagro on Twitter).

The comments cover the topic of using agriculture as the basis for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in schools. It would effectively integrate agricultural experiences into mainstream education without changing learning outcomes, except to improve the awareness of the agricultural industry.

As an example, our article on using ag technology in education touches on similar points, whereby Salah Sukkarieh from the University of Sydney uses ag robotics to teach computer science and programming to high school students.

Encouragingly, Rabobank recently launched the TeacherFX programme, connecting teachers with farmers for a two-day professional development course, potentially delivering benefits suggested in this article.

The background for the insightful contributions by Glenn stem from an ongoing consideration of incorporating agriculture into everyday courses.

I first started thinking about this topic about 8 years ago when an acquaintance from the city had a year out of the classroom with a new baby and they were tasked to rewrite the mathematics curriculum for years 11 & 12. He wanted to use some “real world” examples so i started talking about some of the agronomic research i was doing at the time. After talking through some examples he wanted to know more and grabbed some paper to write notes. I was amazed that his knowledge of how maths could be used was so narrow. But at least he wanted to know more.”

So the age old question asked in the industry is that “given members of the general public no longer have a connection with farming enterprises through relatives or friends, the question is how can farm industries provide accurate and reliable information to the wider community and demonstrate to the community, policy makers and politicians the value of farming and food production?”

So how do we actually accomplish that?

Glenn suggests that “one answer is through embedding curriculum content about agriculture into all subjects at all levels of schooling from K-12. This doesn’t mean a complete take over of the whole curriculum with agricultural content. But simply a period of maybe four to six weeks, or even a whole term, where all subjects concurrently focus on agricultural themes. You may well ask, how can agricultural content be applied for all year grades and subjects? Well it is very easy if you think about it.

Glenn explains further, “for kindy kids this could simply be having a few chickens eating school scraps and laying eggs, or wetting some beans and watching them sprout. At the school where my children go, the year 4-6s grew their own wheat and used it to make bread in the classroom. these and older classes are able to use the same wheat crop to experiment with fertiliser additions and can measure crop traits such as the rates of crop growth.”

The best part about this concept and suggestion is that it is relatively simple to apply as a retrofit to the current education system. While recent discussions between the Prime Minister and David Gonski and developed into a Federal level push for significant education reform, these sorts of changes described don’t necessarily need that sort of change.

For example “I recently had a chat while hiking with a mathematics teacher and was discussing this topic and how a wheat grower uses extensive mathematical calculations for every decision they make when growing and selling their wheat. While many growers may not realise it themselves this includes calculus (eg calculating economical rates of fertiliser on a yield response curve), geometry (eg paddock mapping), probabilities (eg risk management) and algebra (eg in fertiliser or seed calculations and estimating yields). This high school mathematics teacher was stunned at the complexity and depth of mathematical calculations that most growers think is normal. The teacher’s response was “Wow! I could write a complete exam on these examples and that is only for one crop!”.

As we mention over and over here at AgriEducate HQ agriculture covers so much more than just farming and relatively complex mathematics. Glenn explains that there’s “no need to stop at mathematics. Chemistry, physics, biology, economics, geography… they are the easy ones to for which to develop curriculum content. What about English studies? For general English just looking at the debate around GMOs or livestock ethics would keep a class going for weeks. English Literature? There are numerous examples of modern and classical fiction, non-fiction and poetry that have agricultural settings and agricultural themes. The juxtaposition of urban versus rural would also apply to English and other subjects.”

And that is exactly how we have approached our essay competition. Every subject (albeit for our inaugural competition at a tertiary level) is important and can contribute to agriculture. He explains that why stop with STEM. “Media studies? Art? Music? Also not that hard and for what are creative areas of learning, a bit of creativity in the curriculum could bring agriculture into these areas.”

Furthermore, improving the connection with food and fibre isn’t the only outcome of these learning opportunities. An improved connection generates desire to reduce waste, tackle contentious issues with those growing the food in mind, and the connection helps maintain the relationship of agriculture with these kids when they grow up to be leaders around the world.

Once again this is captured “BUT, getting agriculture into the curriculum and increasing the breadth of experiences for students isn’t the only outcome. These students will then have a greater appreciation of where food and fibre comes from without any special excursions or extra effort. These students will have agriculturally related homework that will be discussed with their parent, who will themselves be better informed in the process. These students will grow up to become the business leaders, tradies, engineers and even the politicians of the future. A solid grounding in agriculture accumulated from more than 12 years exposure to agricultural content in the curriculum will result in more considered decision making across the community.”

So in conclusion where does that leave us?
Surely it is not that hard to replace;
“If a person is walking at 4 km/hour how long will it take them to walk 52km?”
with;
“If a farmer shears the wool from 25 sheep/hour how long will it take them to shear 500 sheep?”
We couldn’t agree more Glenn, we couldn’t agree more.

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