Academic journal article Technology and Engineering Teacher

Exploring Agricultural and Biotechnical Engineering through Hands-On Integrated STEM

Academic journal article Technology and Engineering Teacher

Exploring Agricultural and Biotechnical Engineering through Hands-On Integrated STEM

Article excerpt


The manipulation of the natural world in the form of plant materials to design, control, and grow desirable agricultural commodities was central to the establishment and advancement of civilization. Modern developments in genetically modified organisms (GMOs or biologically engineered foods) can trace their origins to macro practices developed and utilized over millennia. By learning about apple grafting, students can be introduced to the pros and cons of agriculture technology, food science, and biotechnology through hands-on, applied learning, fostering technological literacy and demystifying biological engineering concepts in the process.


There are many themes in which one could organize world history. Popular methods involve differentiation into geographic regions, focus on empires and the development of nation states, and/or economic realities. Yet, at the core, the development of civilization was tied to technological development: the history of the world is the history of technology (Volti, 1995). Embodied within was agricultural and biological technology.

The history of the world can therefore be understood in the context of food development. Major transitions occurred in shifts, including domestication of plants and animals leading to hunter gatherers becoming sedentary villagers, selection of desired qualities and traits allowing for trade of surplus and specialty food items, advancements in agricultural technologies (both low and high tech), the Columbian Exchange, and the like (Crosby, 1972; Mudge, Janick, Scofield, & Goldschmidt, 2009). The story of the apple--not so everyday as it turns out--explains the power of nature's biodiversity and symbiotic relationship with human beings, as well as the power, use, misuse, and abuse of biotechnology on the world's physical, cultural, historical, and technological landscapes.

Biotechnology initially centered on food and medicine production. Today's food crops are very different from their original, wild counterparts (Wieczorek & Wright, 2012). The phenomena of using biological organisms began between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago when human beings became sedentary enough to domesticate plants and animals and process materials into different forms to satisfy wants and needs (IRS, 2014). Wieczorek and Wright (2012) explained that initially humans selected better materials for propagation and more desirable traits such as growth season or rate, disease resistance, fruit size, seed quality, nutritional attributes, and adaptability. Historic breeders chose parents to cross, resulting in a random unpredictable recombination of DNA. With the apple, the problem was multiplied--by five (Pollan, 2001).


The seeds from a Haralson or Honeygold apple will produce another apple tree, yet not either of the above-mentioned varieties (Hertz, 2014). Pol Ian (2001) explained, "Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees, for the fruit of the seedling apple is almost always inedible--'sour enough'" (p. 9). When a desirable fruit cultivar was discovered or created, a problem of creating a "true" replica occurred, as cross pollination established another new variety (Hertz, 2014). This generates five new cultivars to be exact, as each seed within the apple core is not only different from the parent type but unique in and of itself (Pollan, 2001). In addition, cuttings or clippings from original trees are too difficult to root; vegetative or asexual reproduction is required (Stoltz & Strang, 2014). Mudge, Janick, Scofield, and Goldschmidt (2009) explained that woody plant species required asexual propagation due to their heterozygous nature. While olives, grapes, figs, and pomegranates were easily rooted from cuttings, to reproduce or preserve an original apple, pear, or plum, we must graft, employing one of many techniques (Hertz, 2014; Mudge, Janick, Scofield, & Goldschmidt, 2009; Stoltz & Strang, 2014). …

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