A 40-foot trailer is parked outside St. Patrick School, and inside, fifth graders line two rows of work stations. A teacher at one end holds an ear of corn and asks students how they can describe it. Hands shoot up. Answers are placed on lab sheets. And soon, students will be turning that corn into plastic.
It was all part of a two-day visit from the FARM Science Lab, an extension of the Michigan Ag in the Classroom program offered by the Michigan Foundation for Agriculture. “It was actually generated by some of our farmer members,” says Tonia Ritter, manager of the promotion and education department for Michigan Farm Bureau.
Those members were looking for a way to help students develop science skills while also gaining a better understanding of the agriculture industry. “Agriculture has a nature fit with STEM and, more specifically, science,” Ritter says. STEM refers to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Today, more than 20 sponsors, including many county Farm Bureaus, support the FARM Science Lab.
Agricultural-Based Lessons for Grades K-5
The lab is specifically targeted for grades 3-5, but lessons are also available for grades K-2. When a school books the FARM Science Lab, they can choose from several lessons for each grade level.
At St. Patrick School, younger kids took part in an A is for Apple lesson which let students use their five senses to compare apples. They learned how they are grown and, of course, got to sample a few. Other students brought home seeds in plastic bag greenhouses. Meanwhile, older classes focused on sustainability and learned how agricultural products can be turned into biodegradable goods.
Other lessons available through the FARM Science Lab let students extract plant DNA, create soybean lip balm or learn more about how farms are run today. “Our hope is that students are learning about agriculture and science,” Ritter says. “It’s as simple as that.”
Getting Back to Roots at St. Patrick School
For St. Patrick School, the FARM Science Lab was a natural fit. “Everybody has a niche,” says Principal Scott Czarnopys. “In this community, it made a lot of sense.”
While farming may be something some kids only read about in books, many St. Patrick School students live on working farms or have relatives who do. It’s something Czarnopys has embraced as part of the school’s identity. “You want to do something that fits with the fabric of the community,” he says.
As a result, the FARM Science Lab is one of only several agriculture-related programs being undertaken by St. Patrick School this year. Earlier this year, 5th graders visited the Franciscan Life Process Center to kick off Farm School. That’s an initiative which will have students returning to the farm throughout the year for lessons that will reinforce classroom learning but in an agricultural setting.
The school is also looking to launch a FFA club for 7th and 8th graders. Also known as Future Farmers of America, FFA clubs explore activities and events related to the agriculture industry. That group is expected to be open to school students as well as religious education and home school students from St. Patrick Parish and St. Mary Church in Lowell.
For a school that has a long history in the local farming community, the emphasis on agricultural-based learning means students can explore roots in more ways than one.