Secondary: Students Take The Classroom To The Farm

Eager high school students invaded the farm lands. Their teachers had left them with only one rule to follow: explore. Through the rocky pathways, dusty fields, and dewy woods still tainted by the early morning air, students traipsed around with the freedom to laugh and explore as they pleased.

More than the average field trip, filled with scientific research, hands-on experimenting, and adventures in the woods, Memorial Polaris Freshman spent their Tuesday and Wednesday mornings unlike the average freshman student—in the soybean fields of Elkhart Community Schools agriculture exploration farm, ACCELL (Agriculture Community Center for Environmental Learning Lab).

“This is such a great way for our students to see science in action and how one of our food sources (locally) is affected by weather, disease, pests compaction, and other factors,” said Cyndy Keeling, ECS’ Director of Ag Curriculum and ACCELL.

With a large team made up of teachers, administrators, and community professionals, including Biology teacher, Eric Shipp, Memorial administrator, Latosha Bonds, Language Arts Teacher, Megan Lewis, Director of Diagnostic Laboratory at Agdia, Deborah Groth-Helms, and Keeling, there is no denying the dedication to improving students outlook and growth towards their future.

As part of Polaris students’ Biology course, students are focusing on genetics. Though instead of  doing the usual in-class research followed by a lab, students instead headed out to ACCELL to test for a specific fungus within the remaining soybeans in order to determine whether the crops were dead, or if they had been affected by diseases.

This curriculum however has bled into all of their core classes, to better promote unity and dedication to projects, an aspect of good work ethic that future employers will look for when hiring employees.

“They will learn historical aspects of farming in Indiana, and the world, how the science of genetics applies to GMO crops, like the soy crop grown on our farm, how to field test for specific pathogens, using Agdia’s proprietary diagnostic testing strips, on site at the farm, how to use a host of technology to collect information, create service projects and products for our local community, and publish their products for review online,” said Shipp.

This project-based learning not only fosters interest within the students, but helps to connect real-world situations and problems with what they are learning in the classroom.

“We’re able to have hands-on experience. I prefer to learn this way because when you’re reading in the book you don’t always understand it, but when you see it, then maybe you’ll remember it more,” said freshman, Abby Koloszar.

With a partnership from local research center, Agdia, a center dedicated to developing and distributing agricultural diagnostic tests and services, Groth-Helms helped students by teaching them about specific pathogens, how their test strips help to diagnose specific diseases in host plants, and how to work with such materials.

Along with this, Groth-Helms was able to act as an “employer” for the students, providing them with advice on work ethic. She then followed this by grading each student on their work ethic and ability to succeed in the workplace.

“At Memorial, we are looking for ways to better engage students in the learning process.  Our goals is to help students apply the knowledge they gain in the classroom to real-life situations.” said Bonds. “This lesson also provides us the opportunity to help students acquire the skills needed to be college and career ready.”

This experience is only the beginning. As only the first high school class to visit the fields, ACCELL representatives remain excited about the future and potential for the program’s growth.

“It’s extremely satisfying. It’s exactly why I took this job.” said Keeling. “It’s incredible to see the growth  and the potential and the development of the program and the wealth of knowledge that our students can gain from their experiences here…They’ll remember this. It’s not about regurgitation on a test. They’ll come back…and say ‘I remember doing this at the farm and in the lab and this is how it relates to what I do everyday.’ ”

This hands-on experience, a unique opportunity to go off-site and learn in real world situations will only grow and expand with time, all for the students’ benefit.

“We really want our students to see that learning goes beyond a book – that true, insightful learning, can take place while working with a team of peers, problem solving and creating together,” said Shipp. “We want our kids to experience successes that will empower them and propel them forward as they continue their journeys in life.”