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Virtual ag learning

Ag in the classroom
Students at Waukee Community Schools participate in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activity that applies to agriculture. The Iowa Ag Literacy Foundation offers lesson plans and activity ideas online at www.iowaagliteracy.org. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Iowa Ag Literacy Foundation sees its website traffic soar as teachers and homeschoolers seek online ag lessons during the pandemic.
The past year hasn’t been what the Iowa Ag Literacy Foundation expected. 

IALF serves as a resource for those who want to include agriculture in their professional or volunteer teaching efforts. Sponsored by Iowa’s ag producer groups and agribusiness, as well as the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, it provides lesson plans, publications, special projects and materials, and links to the Agriculture in the Classroom program.

According to IALF Executive Director Will Fett, the group’s website saw 1,300 unique users in February 2020. That was before COVID-19.

“The change from last year has been quite significant,” says Fett. “We saw rapid, incremental growth in the early months of the pandemic.” The heavy use has continued. In February 2021, IALF had 13,000 unique users on its website, 10 times more than a year earlier.

“We were able to very quickly take our digital components virtual,” says Fett, explaining the two formats are not the same thing. Virtual learning includes additional instructive elements. “As more people were looking for resources, we were able to provide them.”

Fett says their site analytics doesn't tell who is using the materials, but it does say the heaviest use is 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. That is, of course, the average teacher’s schedule. But Fett says there are also home-schoolers who have tapped IALF. 

Adults working with kids have attended virtual field trips and viewed Facebook videos, some garnering 6,000 views. The online version of the kids’ magazine Iowa Ag Today has been popular, and 850 kits of books to pair with online materials sent to teachers were a big hit.

Fett says much of the interest has been seasonal. Turkeys were a hot topic at Thanksgiving time. December brought interest in Christmas tree farming as well as Seasons on the Farm programming that explains what a farmer does in winter.

Spring puts life cycles in the teaching curriculum with lots of interest in hatching chicks.

“Our feedback has been very positive,” says Fett. That feedback includes anecdotal evidence that teachers are excited to utilize ag materials in their classrooms.

Before IALF started in 2014, Agriculture in the Classroom efforts were reaching around 16,000 students. Now with IALF, increased local Agriculture in the Classroom efforts and the associated resources, that number is closer to 300,000. 

“Agriculture gives a context to make core subjects relevant,” says Fett. “Agriculture is the major player in Iowa’s economy. It affects us all in one way or another. Why not use examples from your own back yard?”

IALF strives to give educators an easy way to do just that, and at the same time acquaint students with ag and ag issues.

“People are more aware of our food system and are thinking about where their food comes from,” says Fett. “Issues like water quality and GMOs are in the news. This is an opportunity to make these things understandable, to be part of the conversation.”

IALF will seize another op­­portunity to showcase Iowa agriculture this summer when it hosts the National Agriculture in the Classroom conference in Des Moines June 28-July 1. It’s the first time it has been held in Iowa. The annual conference, which typically attracts 400-500 people, will be a hybrid affair — part live and part virtual.

With the theme “Fields of Dreams” IALF hopes to showcase Iowa and all it has to offer.

“We want to highlight the diversity of Iowa agriculture,” says Fett, “that we have a bit of everything here, not just corn and beans.”

Conference planning may be taking front and center stage for a few months, but it is not the only item on IALF’s agenda. Plans are to translate materials into Spanish to connect with an additional 30,000 students. A series of eight professional development sessions for teachers, spread across the state, is also in the works. 

“We’re looking forward to getting back to normal with a new toolbox of virtual materials on the shelf ready to go, and new audiences to reach,” says Fett. "At the end of the day, it’s all about more people being in step with agriculture and agricultural education as they better understand the food, fiber and fuel system.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Greenfield.



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