The Farmer in the Lab: Agriculture Connects Students with Their Community and Offers Opportunities for Scientific Investigation

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The farming days of our past may be gone, but that is no excuse for children to not know where their food comes from. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007) Barbara Kingsolver laments, "North American children begin their school year around Labor Day and finish at the beginning of June with no idea that this arrangement was devised to free up children's labor when it was needed on the farm" (p. 8-9). Kingsolver believes that people are disconnected from their food because they do not understand that the food they purchase at a grocery store originated on a farm, often shipped from thousands of miles away. Before learning about broader issues such as climate change and rain forest destruction, elementary students should learn about local plants and animals to gain an understanding of local resources (Sobel 1998).

Agriculture can play a key role in fostering scientific literacy because it brings important plant and ecosystem concepts into the classroom. Plus, agriculture, like science, is not static and includes much trial and error, investigation, and innovation. With help from community experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), my fifth-grade students explored the development of pest-resistant varieties of wheat. For ideas for finding similar resources in your community, see "Using Local Resources," p. 43.

In the Lab

As a classroom teacher in Oklahoma I spent several weeks in a USDA-ARS/NSF-sponsored teacher's workshop. The workshop's three main goals included (1) learning about the USDA-ARS sites and their research by conducting small-scale experiments, (2) facilitating similar experiments in K-12 classrooms, and (3) developing an appreciation and a deeper understanding of agriculture in K-12 students. Similar outreach exists at all ARS research stations because of their mission to help with K-12 education. The plant geneticist at my lab focused on the development of alternatives to chemical pesticides to control insects and diseases. These alternatives include genetically resistant crop plants and biological control of insect pests using their natural enemies.

Making cages to keep aphids in:

1. Remove the label from the pop bottle.

2. Use scissors to cut off the top and bottom area of the bottle to form an open-ended cylinder.

3. Cut two 4-5 cm diameter holes on opposite sides of the plastic bottle to allow for ventilation (cutting the holes at different heights helps with cage stability).

4. Cover the side and top holes with voile, a white, lightweight fabric with a tight weave so aphids cannot escape. Attach the voile using a hot glue gun.

* As a safety precaution, the teacher should make the cages because sharp scissors or utility knives and hot glue guns are required.

Specifically, this ARS program is breeding new wheat genotypes, as Oklahoma is a major wheat-producing state. This process involves traditional plant breeding methods in which plants with desirable resistance characteristics are intercrossed with locally adapted plants to produce offspring that may have the desirable characteristics of both parents. Selection within the subsequent generations may then result in a locally adapted variety that has the added quality of resistance to the insect pest. This type of human selection of plants with desirable traits has occurred since humans changed from nomadic to agrarian societies.

It is possible to tailor these investigations to a range of age groups and any area of the country by choosing locally important crops and insects. Students can then better understand problems faced by farmers in their region and understand how local problems may affect global food supplies.

Breeding a resistant crop takes several generations, so this investigation had to be modified for students. We decided to grow two varieties of wheat and observe and count the number of aphids on the wheat plants for our classroom. …