Iowa students returned to school this week with their backpacks stuffed full of pencils, folders, notebooks and, perhaps, an apple for the teacher.

While the basic school supplies never change, students today are sitting in classrooms that are more high-tech, wired and connected than ever before.

Even the iconic symbol of American education, the chalkboard, has gone the way of the one-room schoolhouse. Now many Iowa schools are bringing electronic whiteboards into the classroom.

I recently visited with Emily Starr, an eastern Iowa native and teacher who started her own company, StarrMatica Learning Systems LLC, to develop educational software for the interactive whiteboards.

Starr said her Clinton-based business is growing as more schools use interactive whiteboards to appeal to today’s tech-savvy students.

Interactive whiteboards display video-game-style lessons on a dry-erase board or screen. Kids can play along using a digital pen that works wirelessly with a laptop computer. It’s estimated that one in seven schools worldwide will have an interactive whiteboard by the year 2011.

Talking to Starr about her software company got me thinking how technology has changed not only the classroom, but also the farm.

This fall, many Iowa farmers will harvest their crops with combines that resemble home offices on wheels.

Even in the middle of a corn field, farmers stay connected with e-mail, Facebook, market reports and weather forecasts using smartphones and wireless laptops.

Their combines are often equipped with auto-steer and global positioning system (GPS) technology, so a combine can “drive” itself through the field without a farmer placing hands on the steering wheel, except to make a turn at the end of a row.

The auto-steer technology helps farmers save fuel, because it eliminates unnecessary overlap in fields. It also reduces driver fatigue, allowing farmers to stay in the fields all night long, if necessary, to beat an approaching storm.

In addition, farmers use computerized yield monitors to measure yields as the crop is harvested. Yield data is plugged into GPS maps, which pinpoint areas in the field that may lack nitrogen or phosphorus. This information helps farmers apply fertilizer or manure exactly where needed, at the appropriate amounts.

All this technology has allowed farmers to increase their productivity, reduce their use of fertilizer and fuel, and help protect our natural resources. Or in other words, Iowa farmers are feeding more with less.

So if parents today want their kids to have the latest, greatest technology in the classroom, then why shouldn’t we expect farmers to use the best available technology as well?

Sure, we all love seeing antique tractors puttering at the county fair, just like we enjoy visiting one-room schoolhouses.

But we aren’t going to send our kids off to school with quill pens and ink wells. And we shouldn’t expect farmers to return to the days of hand-picking weeds from their soybean fields - especially when there are billions of people worldwide depending on their crops.

After all, here in Iowa, we’re not only a leader in education. We’re also a leader in providing food to the world. And for that, we should be proud.

If you want to learn first-hand how Iowa farmers grow and harvest their crops, please visit my new favorite blog, Life as an Iowa Farm Wife (

Written by Teresa Bjork
Teresa is a features Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.