How do we connect science-based critical thinking and agriculture education?

Why are STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics and agriculture so separated in today’s learning environments?

How can we inspire the next generation to be problem solvers and innovators, with the potential to impact our global food system?
 

Monica Pastor, Debra Spielmaker and Valerie Bayes

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Monica Pastor, Debra Spielmaker and Valerie Bayes

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Answers to these questions are being sought by Monica Pastor, Associate Area Agent of the Agricultural Literacy Program at the University of Arizona College of Ag & Life Sciences Cooperative Extension; Debra Spielmaker, Team Leader of the National Center for Agricultural Literacy at Utah State University; and Valerie Bayes, STEM Engagement Lead at Monsanto. Ultimately, their objective is to help students develop problem-solving skills and agricultural literacy that may one day allow them to assist in meeting our needs for the food we eat, the fuel we use, and the fiber that clothes us.

As our world ecosystem encounters challenges like a changing climate and a growing population, agriculture is responding by innovating. New digital tools and techniques are helping farmers provide the crops we need while using less of our natural resources, but we’ll also need to continue educating the next generation so that we can proceed further down a sustainable path.

Weaving Agriculture into STEM Education

How can advocates get students excited about making a difference in the world by working in the modern agriculture industry? It starts with teachers and educators, who have the unique ability to reach this next generation of problem solvers through agriculture education.

People like Monica, Debra, and Valerie see modern agriculture as an exciting window to a more sustainable future, and they are working to hit two meaningful benchmarks:

The first is helping society develop a certain level of agricultural literacy, which allows consumers to make decisions with science in mind. After all, agriculture is the foundation of our lives.

[unex_ce_article_image_with_subhead layer-name="Benchmark 1" image_id="9625" image_id_filename="1.png" id="content_j2ve86e80" post_id="9026" semplice_styles_background_color="transparent" semplice_styles_background_image="" semplice_styles_background_size="auto" semplice_styles_background_position="50% 0%" semplice_styles_background_repeat="no-repeat" semplice_styles_padding_top="0px" semplice_styles_padding_bottom="0px" semplice_styles_padding_left="0" semplice_styles_padding_right="0"] <p>The first is helping society develop a certain level of agricultural literacy, which allows consumers to make decisions with science in mind. After all, agriculture is the foundation of our lives.</p> [/ce_article_image_with_subhead]

“Wouldn’t it be really good to know how you interact with your agricultural system to sustain your quality of life?” asked Debra.

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“Wouldn’t it be really good to know how you interact with your agricultural system to sustain your quality of life?” asked Debra.

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The next is making the connection between agriculture and the STEM fields while the students are learning.

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“Teach agriculture as science—don’t do an ag lesson,” advises Monica. “Use agriculture as a way to teach concepts...it’s a way to get a kid connected to what they’re teaching.”

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“Teach agriculture as science—don’t do an ag lesson,” advises Monica. “Use agriculture as a way to teach concepts...it’s a way to get a kid connected to what they’re teaching.”

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Monica runs a program called the Summer Agricultural Institute, during which she spends five days with 30 teachers. The group does field visits and meets with farmers, ranchers, scientists and agribusiness owners, along the way discovering the incredible scale of technological innovation in agriculture. At the beginning and end of the week, the teachers describe their vision of a farmer, and the results tend to shift drastically with the greater understanding of the tools available.

“The first day a teacher drew a picture of a farmer riding on a tractor,” said Monica. “On day five, the teacher again drew a farmer on a tractor, but in her verbal description the tractor contained more technology.”
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“The first day a teacher drew a picture of a farmer riding on a tractor,” said Monica. “On day five, the teacher again drew a farmer on a tractor, but in her verbal description the tractor contained more technology.”

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In her role at the National Center for Agricultural Literacy, Debra manages the National Agriculture in the Classroom website, which includes a searchable database of K-12 lesson plans that help contextualize academic content in agriculture. One of her goals is to strengthen collaboration between agricultural literacy programs, educators, and the public. The benefits of including agriculture in education extend beyond the classroom; by approaching the subject in an innovative way, educators can open the door to a whole new world of opportunities to make a difference that these students may not have considered.

Monsanto employs a team to promote engagement with stakeholder audiences, including educators, increasing transparency and improving agricultural literacy. Valerie was a natural fit, having completed a bachelor's degree in biology and a master’s in education. Today, she spends about 25 percent of her time traveling the country to interact with educators, sometimes bringing scientists with her. Her goal is not to push an agenda, but to be a resource for teachers who inspire students to take a problem-solving approach to modern challenges.

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Connecting Passion for STEM Careers to Modern Agriculture

Digital tools, like data analytics, are helping farmers do much more while using our natural resources more efficiently.  The invention of these tools wouldn’t have been possible without dedicated engineers and programmers, some of whom may not have even originally anticipated the impact their technology would have on food systems. By integrating agriculture into STEM education, students can allow their desire to do good in the world to drive them toward modern agriculture.

Agriculture has always been a catalyst for technology and innovation. The next generation will be expected to rise to the occasion with solutions for the challenges of a growing population and a changing climate. In order to continue meeting our needs in a smart and efficient way, we’ll need professionals to approach situations with sharp critical thinking skills—and learning about agriculture is an excellent portal to developing that competency.