Teaching Agriculture to Elementary Students

Students at Moss Haven Elementary School in the Richardson Independent School District in Dallas, Texas, learn about agriculture at Moss Haven Farm, located on the school’s campus. Most students “are pretty interested [in agriculture] because it’s novel to them; they don’t get outside much,” says Kim Aman, the farm’s program director. Photo courtesy of Russ Aman.

“It is important for elementary students to learn about agriculture because there is a lot of illiteracy when it comes to agriculture. Social media is a main contributor to ag-illiteracy because there are a lot of negative social media campaigns out there…No one looks at the science-based facts, but instead [they believe] what they read,” contends high school student Katelyn Young, vice president of the Arcadia Valley Career Technology Center Future Farmers of America (FFA) Chapter in Ironton, Missouri. She earned certification to teach third graders the Ag-Ed on the Move curriculum (see www.agmoves.com) from Missouri Farmers Care, an organization promoting the continued growth of Missouri agriculture and rural communities.

Young says it’s crucial “to push that positive message across to students who don’t know much about agriculture. These kids are three to five generations removed from the farm. Elementary school is such an important learning time for kids, so what better time to teach them about agriculture? These kids are growing up in a world where the population will be [more than] nine billion in the year 2050. It will be these kids’ job to figure out how to feed the growing world.”

“Almost everything we do is related to food,…[and students need to know that] agriculture careers involve more than just farming,” maintains retired teacher Darleen Horton of Louisville, Kentucky, who contributed lessons to the book Ready, Set, Grow: A Kentucky Educator’s Guide to School Gardens and Hands-On STEAM Learning (available free at www.kyreadysetgrow.org). “Some agriculture jobs are lab jobs,” she points out, while some “involve food already grown,” such as restaurant jobs and careers “connected with the business end of food.” She adds, “Students need to understand the economics of farming, such as gas costs,…and natural ways to garden that help the environment.”

Horton notes that “elementary students embrace what you teach them” and what they learn “can impact their families, who can [be inspired by young students to] learn to recycle and grow plants and food.”

“There’s not a lot of food grown in North Texas, and we’re in the city,… [so] students don’t understand food production,” says Kim Aman, retired teacher and now program director of Moss Haven Farm, located at Moss Haven Elementary School in Dallas, in the Richardson Independent School District. It’s important to reach elementary students because “they will be the future policy makers, shoppers, and buyers,” she asserts.

In addition, agriculture connects with topics like healthy eating. “There are 10-year-olds who already have type 2 diabetes,” Aman points out, so teaching agriculture to young students could positively affect their health. Aman has written related preK–5 curriculum for the American Heart Association and Whole Kids Foundation.

“Some students are scared [initially about farm work]. Some are afraid to get their hands dirty, or to eat radishes, or to be near bees,” Aman relates. She helps them overcome their fears, especially of bees. “I teach them not to be scared of bees and how to act around them.” Most students, she notes, “are pretty interested [in agriculture] because it’s novel to them; they don’t get outside much.” And for students who struggle in school, “digging up worms and growing plants levels the playing field for them.”

Incorporating Agriculture

Tara Kristoff, curriculum director for Rock Falls School District 13 in Rock Falls, Illinois, partnered with local farm bureaus for teacher professional development in agriculture and resources for students. In her prior school district, where she was a curriculum director, teachers initially weren’t receptive to teaching about agriculture.

“We had representatives from the [Cook County Farm Bureau] show our teachers…how they can link trade books with science and social studies to teach agriculture,” says Kristoff. “[Teachers] understand the science of growing corn and soybeans, but with literature [added], they really get enthusiastic” because they can teach it in their English language arts block.

“For example, our fourth-grade teachers taught a unit on pigs. The students learned that Illinois is a major producer of pork as a staple economy globally, and the importance of raising pigs for food. Then the students read Charlotte’s Web to wrestle with the ethical dilemma [of] raising pigs for food versus a pet. Lastly, the students went for a tour of a pig-raising farm at Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, where experts explained [how] the life cycle of the pig [relates] to our economy,” Kristoff recalls.

Teaching students that animals can be food sources requires “a delicate balance,” she observes. Younger students simply learn that “we grow pigs in Illinois,” while third and fourth graders discover that “pork is a staple and pigs are part of our food system. The things students eat—pork tamales and bacon, for example—they [learn to] associate with pigs. They understand they’ve been eating it; they just hadn’t realized it,” Kristoff explains.

“In Illinois, agriculture is the most important job, our main source of income and revenue,” she contends. Noting her current school district has 80% of residents living in poverty, she asserts, “It is especially important for me as a director of curriculum to have students understand where their food truly comes from as well as consider agriculture/agribusiness as a future career.”

“I have been incorporating agriculture fairly heavily [over] the past three years,” says Nancy Smith, first-grade teacher at Bentwood Elementary in Overland Park, Kansas. Smith says she finds it easy to blend agriculture with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and she starts the school year by teaching “about careers in agriculture and STEM as part of my Labor Day lessons.” Later on, “we talk about farmers’ tools, the axe, the trowel, and the shovel” as part of a STEM lesson.

For her school’s student and family night this year, she will incorporate agriculture throughout the event. “The stations will be all agriculture-related. [For example,] Kansas Corn [an organization comprised of the Kansas Corn Growers Association and the Kansas Corn Commission] will have a station. [Students from all grade levels and their families] will learn about Kansas agriculture and do hands-on activities,” she relates.

“I invited a farmer who uses drones to examine his crops. He will demonstrate his drones at the event and explain why he uses them,” she reports.

When she can’t bring students to a farm, Smith takes them on virtual field trips to farms. She also invites high school students from the local FFA chapter “to design activities and centers for my students. This has an impact on the high school students as well,” she observes.

To prepare to celebrate the state holiday Kansas Day ( January 29, the day Kansas was admitted to the United States), Smith will have her students spend a week researching a school lunch that will feature ingredients produced on Kansas farms. “I’ll have farmers and grocery store employees come in,” she relates. “The students will look at the nutritional values and costs of the food. They’ll pitch [their menu] to the food service workers at our school [and ask them] to serve it next year.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best teacher of science  you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of member newspaper, NSTA Reports (www.nsta.org/publications/nstareports.aspx). Editor of Freebies for Science Teachers (www.nsta.org/publications/freebies.aspx) and NSTA Calendar (www.nsta.org/publications/calendar) pages. Follow me on Twitter: @Debra_NSTA
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