The STEM of Agriculture
It was like Sierra Walker had returned home when she first stepped into the agriculture classroom — her new teaching domain — at Alva High School in 2015.
For three of the four years since she graduated with an agricultural education degree, Walker had been exploring the real-world classroom. She had traveled to Canadian farms while earning a master’s in international agriculture, managed a Red Angus cow herd and worked for the nation’s largest cattle feeder.
In 2014, Walker moved to Alva, Oklahoma, and took a job as the local high school’s chemistry teacher. But she could not deny the pull of agriculture.
In addition to chemistry, Walker taught one hour of environmental science. She talked about the Dust Bowl and how people in agriculture had learned to be better land stewards because of it. Her students discovered ways farmers and ranchers protect wildlife habitat, reduce waste and conserve natural resources.
One day, a student stopped her after class and said he was learning more about agriculture in her class than in his agriculture classes. His words sparked within her the same flame that had inspired her to pursue her undergraduate degree.
“There’s an incredible amount of science and math behind everything we do in agriculture, yet we don’t always recognize it in the classroom,” Walker says. “I originally set out to become an agriculture teacher to help bridge that gap.”
Teaching science wasn’t enough, Walker quickly realized. She wanted to teach agricultural science. When a position opened, she jumped at the opportunity.
Walker was preparing for her first year of teaching agriculture when she learned of the Noble Research Institute.
She had received an email from state FFA staff saying the organization was offering a workshop to help teachers prepare their students for Agriscience Fair, a competition that encourages FFA members to use the scientific method to explore agriculture.
That summer, Walker drove four hours south to the Noble Research Institute’s campus in Ardmore to soak up as much as she could about the competition, which Noble helps sponsor in Oklahoma. During the next two days, Frank Hardin, Ph.D., and Jenn Scott, from Noble’s youth-focused Noble Learning education team, offered ideas on how to get students thinking about projects. They showed experiments to the teachers and introduced them to the real-world research taking place on campus.
“It was an amazing experience,” Walker says. “I loved everything they were doing. I loved seeing the research. I loved the way they gave us information to take back to the classroom by sparking our curiosity, too. I’ve been hooked on Noble ever since.”
Walker returned home determined to involve her students in another of the programs she had discovered during the workshop: Oklahoma Envirothon, a team-based competition that combines in-class curriculum with field experiences to engage students in learning about natural resources.
That fall, Walker organized her first group of students to compete. The next year, her students asked to start preparing for the March competition as soon as school started, she says.
Walker also brings her students to the Noble Research Institute to connect the concepts they learn in class to real-world applications.
Walker may show her wildlife classes a video of BoarBuster capturing feral hogs. But, she says, the students gain a new level of excitement when they see the trap deploy in real-time during a conversation with Josh Gaskamp, a wildlife consultant who contributed to the research behind the trap.
Students familiar with raising livestock see a different aspect of agriculture when they meet Carolyn Young, Ph.D., a scientist who works with fungi to improve grasses consumed by cattle. Young leads them in observing fungi beneath the microscope and learning how to pipette genetic materials into gels and see DNA after successful completion of such an experiment.
“I love that Noble gets the kids involved in many of the areas they’re working in,” Walker says. “The kids get to see actual research that is happening and interact with the people who are doing it. They get to see that ‘Hey, that’s a job that I could do.’”
Students become scientists for the day as part of hands-on lessons developed by Noble Learning’s youth education outreach program.
Teachers from across the U.S. complete 80 hours of training during the Principles of Agricultural Science – Plant CASE Institute hosted by the Noble Research Institute.
For Teachers and Students
During Walker’s most recent visit to the Noble Research Institute, the teacher became a student.
In 2007, The National Council for Agricultural Education started CASE, or Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education, to enhance the rigor and relevance of agricultural course work. CASE Institutes are held throughout the country to train teachers in high-level, hands-on agricultural-themed curriculum that integrates science and math.
In 2016, the Noble Research Institute and Oklahoma State University brought the first CASE Institute, a course in plant science, to Oklahoma.
“We brought CASE to Oklahoma because it empowers agriculture teachers,” says Hardin, youth education outreach manager. “We recognize that today’s students are the future for agriculture and our society, and we want to do everything we can to help teachers cultivate critical thinkers who understand and appreciate agriculture and science’s role in it.”
Noble hosted another CASE Institute in the summer of 2018. Walker was among the 12 teachers from across the country — from as far away as Hawaii — who attended.
For 10 days, the teachers donned white laboratory coats and immersed themselves in lessons they could teach their own students.
They learned about soil and the microorganisms in it, pH levels and fertilizers, greenhouse and field production, commercial and at-home agriculture, plant reproduction, and photosynthesis. At each step, the curriculum introduced a new activity to promote deeper understanding. Activities drew the teachers-turned-pupils into projects and problems similar to those that plant scientists might face.
“Looking back, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Walker says. “The CASE curriculum brings out the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) of agriculture. It’s just another way that Noble has been a great resource to me.”