A farm-to-desk adventure

Written by Austin Black on .

Third-grade students across Missouri are learning about agriculture in a fun and exciting way. Agriculture Education on the Move (AEOTM) provides hands-on and interactive learning that highlights the importance of agriculture and farm families.

AEOTM began in 2011 through the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and the soy checkoff. The council saw a need for hands-on ag education and built a program that targeted elementary school classrooms. By 2015, the program represented all sectors of Missouri agriculture. To provide support for continued expansion, the MSMC partnered with Missouri Farmers Care. Today, the program is in over 100 schools across the state. More than 200,000 students and their families have experienced hands-on agriculture education.

“Ag Education on the Move is an excellent way to communicate with the next generation all the good things that farmers and ranchers are doing to make our lives better. With their leadership and passion for this information, and the difference that it makes regardless of whether you live in the city or on the farm, the AEOTM program is making a difference. Missouri Farmers Care is proud to have the AEOTM program as part of our toolbox to tell the real stories about modern day agriculture in Missouri,” said Dr. Alan Wessler, MFC Chairman.

AEOTM is a 10-week classroom program. Lessons cover row crop and livestock production, soil and water management and Ag careers. The goal is increasing the consumer’s general knowledge of agriculture production.

Trained educators visit third-grade classrooms for one hour each week. Many of them have a background in agriculture, and some have prior teaching experience. “We want to identify passionate educators, so they can act as a vehicle and ensure the existing quality resources are getting into the classroom and making an impact,” said Luella Gregory, AEOTM program director.

Students receive a handbook and educators use PowerPoint presentations and hands-on activities. The PowerPoint presentations have quizzes, photos and videos that cater to all types of learners. All lessons have a STEM component, using science, technology, engineering and math. State commodity groups provide the curriculum, so every school receives standardized material. “They worked hard to improve the text so it goes along with state standards,” said Buchanan County 3rd grade teacher Kimberly Weigel.

“Ag Education of the Move’s strength is in delivering components of our members’ effective agriculture education curriculum directly to students,” said Ashley McCarty, MFC Executive Director.

But the lessons go beyond science. “Not only do we focus on science, but we try to incorporate family farm characteristics and show the faces behind everyday products,” Gregory said. Educators stress the fact that farmers work 365 days each year.

“Even if [the students] don’t remember the details of the lesson, they remember the sacrifice made when livestock farmers wake up on Christmas morning and have to feed the animals first,” she said.

Education that excites

Since teaming up with MFC, AEOTM has seen rapid growth and interest. Most of it is due to teachers recommending the program to each other. “The program speaks for itself,” Gregory said. AEOTM offers its programs to schools free of charge, which is a large contributor to the organization’s growth. “Students love hands-on learning and teachers love the material,” Gregory said. “We want teachers to feel like this is an added program to enhance what they are currently doing, not a sacrifice of their time. Educators often comment that students are on the edge of their seat the whole hour,” she added.

Teachers tend to have a full workload keeping up with curricula and the art of teaching itself. Asking them to learn, incorporate and implement a curriculum on an unfamiliar subject is likely to fail.

The strategy with AEOTM is to provide the experts. That’s an aspect St. Joseph third grade teacher Bridget Wells appreciates. “It helps when the kids have an expert in the classroom, they believe them more than they believe me. It’s more exciting for them,” Wells said.
Students in Weigel’s class always ask when the educator is coming next. “The kids just love it and look forward to it. It’s a good way to get kids excited about science and math,” she said.

Wells has also learned a few things from watching the educators.

“They’re very well organized and knowledgeable. For me, it has benefited me by helping review what the kids learned about plants and lifecycles. The women teaching show me a different way to explain things in future years to come,” said Wells, whose favorite unit is the lesson on dairy production.

“I don’t think kids understand there are different types of cows. They are blown away learning that different cows have different uses,” Wells said. She likes getting to make ice cream in that lesson also.

In the 2015-2016 school year, AEOTM placed 26 educators in more than 100 classrooms across the state of Missouri.

But AEOTM isn’t planning to stop there. Gregory said they are working to increase activity in urban areas, including St. Louis, Springfield, Kirksville, Cape Girardeau and Columbia and the more densely populated counties that surround these cities. And, Gregory pointed out, students lack general agriculture knowledge even in rural school districts.

Last fall, AEOTM placed educators in schools throughout Kansas City.

Schools there offer different challenges, but the results are just as rewarding. Gregory said most of the students aren’t exposed to anything outside of their neighborhood. “These students have never seen a cow, corn stalk or soybean,” she said. There are more language barriers too, so educators have to use hands-on methods to teach.

As it expands, AEOTM is partnering with selected FFA chapters to find educators. FFA members in these chapters can apply to be an educator in their community. The program provides FFA members with interview training and classroom experience.

Hands-on learning

While implementing a successful classroom program, AEOTM expanded its efforts outside the school building. In the fall of 2014, AEOTM conducted Ag Day tours on local farms. These tours provided hands-on learning experience for students not involved in the classroom program. Schools treat the tours like a field trip, so teachers and parents also attend. The tour rotates through three or four stations, discussing topics related to the operation.

One of the Ag Day tours visited a beef farm where attendees took a hayride out to the pasture to see cattle. At another station, they learned about nutrition and saw the feed ingredients used on the farm.

Most tours occur upon request of local schools and feature farms in the immediate area. “Ag Day tours target students we might not otherwise have,” Gregory said. The tour offers networking opportunities as well, connecting teachers with the AEOTM program.

“Everybody loves it,” Gregory said. “A lot of teachers say sometimes they are limited when teaching science. They love the opportunity to expose science in a different way.”

For some kids, the Ag Day tours offer them the opportunity to see livestock in real life for the first time. “We all know what kind of impact an animal can have on kids,” Gregory said.

Last year, AEOTM conducted three tours in Columbia, St. Joseph and Cape Girardeau. Between 100-600 students attended each tour. This May, they plan to host an Ag Day tour in the Kansas City area.

Focus on teachers

In addition to students, AEOTM also focuses on educating the teachers. “In the fall of 2014 we started talking about building relationships with these teachers,” Gregory said. During the classroom sessions, the teacher often asks as many questions as the students. To provide support for teachers, AEOTM started conducting Teacher to the Farm tours.

The tours occur in the summer and showcase area agriculture businesses and farms. Teachers see agriculture production firsthand and get answers to their questions. “I think we have a lot of people with good intentions that want to know the facts,” Gregory said. During the tour, teachers are invited to tweet comments and share what they learned. Gregory said several teachers were impressed with the amount of technology used in farming. “It helps rebrand their idea of what farming is. That’s one of the biggest comments,” she said.

Last summer, Weigel attended one of the tours in Northwest Missouri. She visited Shatto Dairy in Osborn, Mo., and BioZyme, a feed supplement plant. “At the dairy, I learned about the process of how milk is produced from start to finish,” Weigel said. Her husband is a farmer, but they didn’t have much experience with running a dairy. “It gave me respect for that family. They had to keep that family farm going and restructure their business,” she said.

The BioZyme plant was a learning experience for Weigel. In addition to touring the plant, they visited the research farm to see how products were tested. “I learned how scientific it is and how much testing they have to put into the product before selling. Stuff that consumers don’t think about,” she said.

Each tour hosts 25-30 teachers. Last summer, AEOTM conducted its first three tours in the Columbia and St. Joseph areas. Three were planned for summer 2016: St. Joseph, Washington and Cape Girardeau. Gregory said they intend to conduct a tour in every region of the state each year.

AEOTM is always seeking help. Gregory said they continually search out new schools and educators interested in volunteering. For more information or to get involved with AEOTM, visit www.agmoves.com. Click on the About page for contact information.

What teachers have to say

Teachers who participate in AEOTM programs love the results. Here are some testimonies that highlight benefits of the program.

“Ag Education on the Move educators make learning fun and exciting for students.” –Erin Caldwell, Alpha Hart Elementary, Columbia

“No other classroom program we have participated in has engaged the kids like this has.” –Jerrone Willoughby, Parkway Elementary, St. Joseph

“The Teacher to the Farm tour was so much more than I expected!” –Diana Deatherage, St. Joseph School District

“In 2015, Whittier Elementary was designated as a Lighthouse School, to facilitate science, technology, engineering and mathematics within its diverse student body. The hands-on activities are perfect to get the kids to apply what they are learning.” –Luis Hinojose, Whittier Elementary Principal, Kansas City

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