Students at Frederick Douglass learn about agriculture through mobile science lab

By Rachel Lord

A dream to travel and bring young children more information on the importance of farming began at the Delaware Farm Bureau (DEFB) more than five years ago. After a mobile Ag Lab was donated by the Department of Agriculture, and some fundraising was done to buy a truck to pull it, the Ag Lab became a source of farming knowledge for kids across the state at various locations, such as Boy and Girls Clubs. Last year, the DEFBs Ag Lab started a pilot program at schools, and this year they started off the season at Frederick Douglass Elementary School from Aug. 5-7.

Laura Simpson, DEFB Foundation Manager, emailed elementary school principals earlier this year, and responses were treated on a first-come, first-served basis. Since the trailer has no a/c or heat, around October is the cut-off date for coming out to the schools. Classes are often split up as they come outside to the trailer, as it can only handle about 15 students at a time, but teachers have not seemed to mind, according to Simpson. The Ag Labs program is designed to fit with the fourth grade curriculum. Simpson talks to the students about healthy eating and the five food groups; how a countrys size can affect the capacity to grow food and, subsequently, food prices and the economy; different types of soil and what can grow in them; and how food gets from a farm to the table. The program is also designed to align with Next Generation Science and Common Core standards.

Aug. 7, the last day of the Ag Labs presence at Frederick Douglass, was a beautiful day for the kids to be outdoors. Throughout the three days, between four and six classes were seen per day for about a half an hour each. At 10:15 a.m., 11 students from Michael Hurlocks fourth grade class entered the trailer. The kids are engaged, said Kevin Truitt, associate principal, of the Ag Lab. They love the fun facts that [Simpson] has put up on the wall - I love the fun facts. Theres oneƉ One acre of soybeans can produce over 82,000 crayons. Stuff like that, kids love to hear about.

Simpson also tells the kids how fun it can be to become a farmer. A lot of kids dont even think about farming as a career, she explained. For this reason, she describes some of the perks of being a farmer, such as being your own boss, being outside, and watching animals, fruits and vegetables, or flowers grow. Kids have a stereotyped idea of a farmer as being an old man with a beard and piece of straw in their mouth, she added, so she asks kids to describe their idea of a farmer then shows them real pictures of farmers that might contradict these ideas, such as young or women farmers.

I had one kid tell me why people dont think about farming is it has to be in your family and handed down over and over, Simpson recalled. Her response was, of course, that this was untrue, and she added that you can be a successful farmer with a small farm too, even if its just 10 acres, depending on what you grow. Many kids dont think about planting flowers or selling eggs (which you do not need a lot of chickens for). Its fun, she said. It gets them thinking a little bit, and then we talk about other agribusinesses like seed geneticists or soil scientists or chemical engineers or anything like that. Sometimes they dont think about those either. Of course, every kid in the group decided they would want a big farm, though what they would raise ranged in answer from cows (the most popular answer) or goats to watermelon or strawberries. Each student got to plant a seed to take home with them; after putting a soil pod into their cup, watering it, and returning to it 10 minutes later, their faces were completely amazed at the expanded pod ready to be planted.

The teachers then incorporate the lessons from the Ag Lab to their classroom studies. My students really enjoyed the Mobile Ag Lab this week, Hurlock said after their return. Many of them came back and talked about how they got to observe a seed begin its growth cycle. They were also excited to learn where certain foods came from and about the different soil types. We are going to integrate this experience with the fourth grade science kit Structures of Life. In this unit of the Delaware Science curriculum, students learn all about the growth and life cycle of living things. The Mobile Ag Lab was a great introduction to seeds and living things for our students.

In an effort to make this instructive, hands-on experience more attainable for schools, the mobile lab can be booked for one dollar per student. Naturally, this does not cover costs, so the DEFB does fundraising to make up the difference. They recently held their first Mad Bull Mud Run at the State Fair to great success, Simpson commented; they also hold an ag industry dinner featuring speciality auction items and a live auction, and they come up with new, creative ideas yearly. In addition, they apply for some grants, such as a $2,000 grant from the CenDel Foundation that the DEFB is awarded yearly. We just are constantly trying to think of different ways to raise money for programs such as the Ag Lab, Simpson added.

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