Micki Runyan remembers the day Frank Hardin, Ph.D., first stepped into the principal's office at Dickson High School.
"He was so kind, and we were so excited," the biology teacher said. She chuckled as she continued, "It was like someone had thrown this sweet little rabbit to ravenous wolves."
It was 2012, and Hardin had sat down to talk with Runyan, principal Rex Trent and chemistry teacher Wanetta Thompson about how the Noble Research Institute's newly formed youth educational outreach program, Noble Academy, could help ignite students' excitement about science and agricultural education.
Hardin, a scientist turned educator, had recently been selected to lead Noble Academy. He discovered his love for connecting students with science while teaching undergraduate laboratory courses as he pursued his graduate degrees in cellular biology at the University of Georgia.
"Agriculture is the original science," Hardin said. "And we want to show students the role agriculture plays in their everyday lives while introducing them to careers in agriculture. We want to help build strong leaders who can discern information by applying the basics of logic and science they learned in eighth grade."
But first, Hardin wanted to better understand teachers' needs so he could shape Noble Academy to meet them. Calls to schools turned into meetings, and meetings turned into collaborations. Soon Hardin started bringing hands-on science lessons to classrooms. A few years later, Jenn Scott joined him as educational outreach assistant after teaching high school agriculture for 10 years.
"We could tell he had a great love for bringing science and agriculture to students," Runyan said. "It was a great fit. We've been working with Noble Academy for four years now, and it has just bloomed."
Students from the Take Two Academy in Ardmore, Oklahoma, help build a hoop house on Oct. 22, 2015.
About 20 minutes away, Tim Parham knows it's not easy to keep 100 eighth-graders interested in an all-day activity. But the Plainview Middle School principal said Noble Academy's annual Science in Ag Day does it pretty well.
Each year, Plainview students load up on busses and head out to either Hardy Murphy Coliseum in Ardmore or the Noble Research Institute's campus to spend a day exploring science through the lens of agriculture alongside other area eighth-graders.
"It was interesting to see all the microbes from the cow's stomach," said Jentri Rayburn, a Plainview student, after learning how ruminant animals convert grass to muscle at this spring's Science in Ag Day. "I'm around cows a lot, so it was cool to see what's inside them."
Rayburn and her classmates also planted their own strawberry plants and learned about plant propagation. They simulated plant breeders' work to produce higher-yielding, more disease- and pest-resistant plants. And they learned about wildlife habitat, soils, polymers and technologies that assist land management decisions.
"We have kids with a natural interest in agriculture; whose families are involved in agriculture, but we also have kids who aren't familiar with it," Parham said. "Science in Ag Day has something for all of them. We always have kids come back talking about it, and they wear their Science in Ag Day T-shirts throughout the year."
Hardin and Scott visit Plainview multiple times during the school year with a rolling rack full of student-size white laboratory coats and all the materials needed for the sixth- through eighth-graders to conduct an experiment. The students become scientists for 40 minutes as they pull DNA from a strawberry and iron from cereal. Each lesson is an opportunity to further explore concepts their teacher has explained.
On those days, after the lesson, Parham looks for the students who struggle academically.
"Those kids light up," Parham said. "Our kids go berserk over the lessons. They especially reach those who are difficult to get plugged in. And it inspires the teachers to think outside the box in their own lesson planning."
Noble Academy's out-of-the box approach also has the middle school expanding agriculture in their own little circle. Public schools are being squeezed for funding, Parham said, but Hardin has shared advice on applying for grants. As a result, Plainview Middle School will soon have a hoop house where students will raise vegetables and herbs as an educational laboratory. Eventually the principal hopes their produce will be served in the school cafeteria.
"My brain wasn't even looking for that, but now we're jumping all in," Parham said. "To collaborate with these brilliant people, some of the best in the world, has been such a positive experience. I can count on Dr. Hardin and Noble Academy's support."
Brian Williams, a small plot research associate, mentors students at the soils rotation during the 2016 Oklahoma Envirothon held at the Noble Research Institute.
Will Moseley was determined not to let the Oklahoma Envirothon competition for high schoolers completely fizzle out. But he needed a little help.
The Noble Research Institute wildlife and fisheries consultant became involved in the competition as a judge in 2009. During the next couple of years, he tutored a team from Lawton. Moseley remembers pulling out his notes from college, including those from a graduate-level course on population dynamics. He began the study sessions by telling the students, "Now this is advanced material," but they were eager to learn.
"To see them not only start to understand the concepts but enjoy learning was enjoyable for me," Moseley said. "I saw how valuable that education was. Plus, traveling around the state, and beyond in the case of the North American competition, gave them the chance to see various real-world problems in our environment and have amazing experiences together. It's an extracurricular activity I wish I'd had when I was their age."
Between 2009 and 2013, fewer and fewer teams participated, and the outlook for the Oklahoma Envirothon seemed bleak. So, Moseley took it upon himself to bring the competition to the Noble Research Institute and keep it going.
The full-time consultant quickly realized he didn't have the time to consult, run such a large event and do what he loved at Envirothon mentor students. By 2014, Noble Academy had stretched its reach beyond the traditional classroom setting, and Moseley knew Hardin was just the help he needed. After a year of observing, Noble Academy was ready to host in 2015.
"Envirothon is a great example of how Noble Academy is truly an organizational effort," Hardin said. "Noble Academy pulls together people passionate about their work. Will is passionate about Envirothon, and together we use the competition to show students the importance of properly managing natural resources and environmental issues facing current and future generations."
The program drew in eight teams from across the state in 2016. The Edmond North High School team won the state championship title, and Noble Academy flew them to the North American Envirothon competition, which took place at the end of July in Ontario, Canada, to compete against 52 teams from across North America.
"It's night and day different now," Moseley said. "Noble Academy engages the students and gets them excited. They build connections with the teachers, and I focus on writing tests and finding judges. That two-way interaction between the judges and students is what makes Envirothon great, but it wouldn't happen without Noble Academy."
Jonathan Harris competes in the Junior Botball program hosted by Noble Academy.
Noble Academy's first three years focused on building collaborations with local teachers and educators as far away as the Dallas Arboretum and Field of Hope in Uganda. In 2015, Hardin began searching for a way to round out Noble Academy's STEM approach with a technology and engineering component.
When Hardin met Steve Goodgame, he knew he had found a winner: Botball, a program that teaches elementary through high school students how to program mobile computers with sensors (aka robots) to accomplish tasks.
"When I saw elementary students using computer language to program these robots, it was amazing," Hardin said. "You see these students having a blast. What they don't know is there's an incredible amount of learning going on simultaneously. We knew this would be a great fit."
Goodgame serves as the executive director of the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, which created Botball in 1994 and now reaches students throughout the world. He laughs lightheartedly at his and Hardin's first meeting. Hardin drove up to Norman for what they planned to be an hour-long session in September 2015. Four hours later, the two were still talking about their ideas on how to bring science and agriculture to the forefront of more students' minds and the many applications of robotics in agriculture.
"We were like birds of a feather," Goodgame said. Before coming to the KISS Institute, Goodgame worked on his family's agricultural operation in New Mexico, served as his local Farm Bureau president and taught high school science.
Agriculture is one of the biggest and most untapped areas for robotics, Goodgame said. Precision technologies like GPS-guided tractors, automatic milkers and unmanned aerial vehicles require computer programming. The possibilities are endless, and the future of agriculture needs computer programmers.
Jonathan Harris and Amber Presley learned computer programming, critical thinking and perseverance skills through the Junior Botball program hosted by Noble Academy.
"The robots are a cool way to promote agriculture because they excite kids," Goodgame said. "It sparks their interest and teaches them something rigorous that has value. Even if they don't become program coders, they learn to look at and solve problems in a different way. We're filling up the toolboxes of our future problem-solvers."
Hardin adopted the junior program, designed to teach elementary students the basics of computer language through team-based challenges, for a Noble Academy workshop. He and Scott then contacted six area schools, which each selected two fourth- or fifth-graders to participate in the workshop taught by members of the Noble Research Institute's Department of Computing Services.
Jonathan Harris, known as "Jono" to his friends, is a fifth-grader at Plainview who participated in the workshop alongside teammate Amber Presley, a fifth-grader from Dickson.
"Botball is about being able to build something," Jonathan said. "For me, that's enough. I like having a challenge and having to go back and fix things. I really got into everything about it. I'd like to get into the field of robots helping people."
After seven two-hour sessions, the students demonstrated their skills at a challenge day that Noble Academy made open to all schools. It brought in additional students from three schools, including one from Moore, Oklahoma, two hours north.
Jonathan and Amber stood side-by-side ready to tackle the challenges they had practiced in the workshop and try new ones. Amber's parents and grandmother watched from the sidelines.
"The first time I asked Amber about how Botball went, she said, 'It was awesome!'" said Tammy Presley, her mother. "I'm impressed with all they've learned. I think it will be very beneficial for their future, and Amber is so interested in it."
The students were given five minutes to complete each challenge, although they could try as many times as necessary. Amber and Jonathan worked to "park" their robot in a "garage" on a challenge mat at one of the stations. They punched in their code and watched as the robot headed straight. Then the robot spun, and the teammates laughed.
"That's not supposed to happen!" Amber said, and the two brought the robot back to the starting line. Laughter turned to seriousness, and they didn't give up until they succeeded.
The junior program prepares the budding programmers for the tournament-style Botball competition for middle and high schoolers. This advanced program features a "game" in which students go head-to-head to complete challenges as part of a mission.
This year, the young programmers had to keep the stranded "BotNaut" alive on Mars until a rescue mission could save it. Next year, thanks in part to the conversation between Hardin and Goodgame that day in September, the students' challenges will all be related to agriculture.
Hardin and Scott continue to seek new ways to make science and agriculture exciting to students while supporting teachers in the classroom.
Micki Runyan recognizes a shift in her students' attention level when she invites Noble Academy into her biology class at Dickson High School. Scott visited four or five times at the end of last year to reinforce lessons Runyan taught throughout the year.
"The students look at the lessons differently when they are wearing those Noble Academy lab coats," Runyan said. "I can say something over and over, and they look at me like a calf at a new gate. Frank and Jenn can come in and say the same thing, and they're like 'I've never heard that before!'"
Days with Noble Academy are fun, she said, but that's not only what they're about. Noble Academy provides handouts that include questions and follow-up activities for students to learn more on their own. Runyan's students keep their finished handouts in their class folders.
"Sometimes those follow-up activities turn into even more lightbulb moments for them," she said.
Throughout her 32 years of teaching science, five at Dickson, Runyan has encouraged her students to compete in science fairs. Her students have presented science projects all over the country, including her daughter, Taylor Runyan, who won the National FFA Star in Agriscience in 2012.
Runyan seeks out professional scientists who can help her students develop their projects. Often, Hardin is her go-to mentor. She's even been known to send other teachers and their students to him as they prepare for the Oklahoma FFA Agriscience Fair.
Hardin and the students brainstorm, bounce thoughts off each other, and figure out what is testable.
"For my kids, that's a huge role," she said. "He's always so kind and generous. He has a great ability to relate to the kids. It's way above his call of duty, but that's his love of science, his love of agriculture. And who knows, one of these kids might be on to the next big research that finds a cure for cancer or something to help hunger."
Runyan goes on to explain that her students are the future, and Noble Academy helps engage and excite them while unlocking their potential.
"We're blessed to work with Noble Academy," Runyan said. "I don't think they could have done anything more needed at such a crucial time in education. It helps open a whole new world for students."