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Sparking students' interest in sciences through agriculture

Sparking students' interest in sciences through agriculture
Back during my college days, when I was taking freshman classes in huge lecture halls at Iowa State University (ISU), I studied biology before I switched majors to journalism.

Admittedly, looking back, it wasn’t my smartest life decision. But I remember sitting in lab classes, sorting ugly fruit flies to determine which had the genetic trait for red eyes versus white eyes, thinking I didn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of my life. Plus, I wanted to live close to family after graduation, and I couldn’t imagine finding a job with a biology degree in Iowa.

Fast-forward to a year ago, when I met an ISU food science graduate who completed a research project on the different characteristics of cold-hardy wine grape varieties.

Even though she didn’t grow up on a farm or plan on a career in agriculture, she now works in a lab at the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at ISU, testing the quality of grape and wine samples sent in from wineries across the state.

If someone had told my 19-year-old self that working in a lab might mean testing wines all day, helping build the reputation of Iowa’s wineries as some of the best in the country, then I wouldn’t have switched my major to a career that’s being taken over by blogs and tweets.

Now science, technology and agriculture are the fastest growing careers in Iowa. A few weeks back, a pre-caucus New York Times story  even highlighted how Iowa companies like Kemin Industries can’t find enough skilled workers in science and technology to fill their needs.

Recognizing the career opportunities close to home, Iowa schools are focused on introducing science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – curriculum in classrooms as soon as students enter kindergarten.

But that doesn’t mean kids are doing boring lab experiments growing tiny fruit flies in test tubes anymore. Instead, many teachers are using agriculture to spark their students’ interest in STEM careers.

John Seiser, a fifth- and sixth-grade science and math teacher at Northeast Hamilton Community Schools, recently received the Iowa Excellence in Teaching Agriculture Award from the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and supported through a grant from the CHS Foundation.

In Seiser’s classroom, students are raising turkeys, starting heirloom pepper seeds  and growing a school garden to learn about science and math.

“I’m a very hands-on teacher, and I think kids learn best by being hands-on," Seiser said. "It’s very important that the kids learn where their food is coming from. We probably spend half of our time incorporating agriculture while studying science. You can incorporate agriculture in so many ways."

Plus, his young students are discovering the many ag-related career opportunities available here in Iowa, even if they don’t live or work on a farm.

"We always talk about possible careers in agriculture for them. They can grow their own produce and sell it at a farmers market or become an agronomist or work at a bank as an ag loan officer. If you’re a kid and you’re from Iowa, you’re tied to agriculture," he said.

And keeping more young families in the state makes Iowa a better place to live for all us, generating income for rural areas and creating more cultural opportunities – like a summer evening relaxing at an Iowa winery, enjoying a glass of award-winning wine made possible, in part, by a scientist.

To learn more about the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation, check out www.iowaagliteracy.org or follow along as Iowa students learn about ag in the classroom on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/iowaagliteracy.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.