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FARM lab puts wheels under outreach to kids

The mobile labs bring ag’s story to more than 120 schools in Michigan.

Jennifer Kiel

November 29, 2022

6 Slides
teacher Kerri Underwood and Domenic Franconi’s wife Kristine Franconi accompany the Pre-K class at Assumption of the Blesse

As Michigan’s FARM Science Labs are touring the state, one second grader, with much enthusiasm, answered the question of where a green bean seed came from with the answer “jelly beans.”

It brought a chuckle to those who knew better. But it’s OK, because if you don’t ask the questions, or if no one teaches it, how are these young ones to know? That’s part of the mission of this Michigan Farm Bureau-developed program that started with a great deal of research in 2016 and a launch in 2017, which now includes two 42-foot, self-contained, mobile classrooms.

“We are reaching out to students to educate, in a fun way, the many ways agriculture provides for us,” says Michelle Blodgett manager, Michigan Agriculture in the Classroom, and head of the FARM (Food, Agriculture, Resources in Motion) Science Lab. “That includes explaining how all plants start from a seed, and what farmers do to care for their animals. It’s exciting to share that Michigan is No. 2 in agricultural diversity [in the U.S.], and we grow and raise over 300 different crops.”

That’s just one of the many grade-specific lessons taught inside the FARM Science Lab, which is equipped with the latest teaching technologies and tooled with STEM-based lessons aligned with state and national standards. It provides hands-on science opportunities while increasing students' knowledge of how agriculture affects their daily lives, explains Blodgett, who is a retired teacher taking on a second career to lead this nine-months-a-year effort.

“I'm hoping they understand where their food comes from because we have kids now two to three generations removed from the farm,” she says. “When we ask the question where does your food come, often the answers are McDonald's, the refrigerator, my mom, the grocery store or a cardboard box. Getting students from urban and rural districts alike to understand that it starts at the farm is very important.”

But that’s not all. Blodgett and all who work in this program are focused on highlighting the opportunities for employment in the agriculture industry. “Twenty percent of the careers open right now are in agriculture,” she says. “So, in our 3-5 grade lessons, we highlight careers tied from farm to table, whether it's transportation, food, packaging, food safety testing and more. It’s getting them to think beyond the traditional farmer and understanding that they all need to work together to produce food — from programming a tractor to flying a drone.”

The FARM lab is funded through the Michigan Foundation for Agriculture. Local county farm bureaus also contribute sponsorship funds, as do commodity groups and other agribusinesses, which receive signage and recognition on the outside of the mobile lab.

“Our mission and vision overlap, and because we have access to schools, it helps us share their story because they may not have the staff or the opportunity like we do to travel the state,” Blodgett says.

Getting started

Michigan’s pilot program was based on work in other states, similar to Maryland and Pennsylvania, as part of the National Agriculture in the Classroom program. Michigan Farm Bureau volunteers traveled other states to gain insight and inspiration. They contracted with Pennsylvania’s A-1 Motors for construction but added something new — access and technology.

Throughout the U.S., there about a dozen states using the mobile labs. Each one may be set up a little bit differently. Some of them are walking museums, while others are classrooms.

“Having technology incorporated allows us to do so much more, but it’s also a challenge because you have Wi-Fi,” Blodgett says. “We have two different Wi-Fi systems in here because we cover the whole state of Michigan, and we had to put in boosters to make sure our technology worked. Because we are in Michigan, we also had to have both air conditioning and heat.”

The first lab traveled throughout Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in 2017, and added programming in the Upper Peninsula the following year.

“Our members saw the demand, as we were booking a year in advance. We had another one built that was launched in the fall of 2019,” says Blodgett, who uses regional educators, about 8-12 in a school year, to teach in areas where they live in, while others will travel to parts of the state not currently covered.

Today, the mobile labs visit about 120 schools a year, serving 16,000 students and more than 800 teachers a year.

Student impact

“Science comes alive in the lab,” says Kerri Underwood, teacher of the pre-K class at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Belmont, Mich., where the lab visited in October. “During the second day of the visit, my students enjoyed planting a green bean seed. Recently, one of my students told me that her seed had sprouted and was really growing. The FARM Science Lab is hands-on, taught at a level my students understand, and it is fun.”

Pre-K through second grade lessons are 30 minutes long, and focus on what is a farmer, what is a farm, and where food comes from. Teachers come out with their students and are hands-on engaged. Grades 3-5 receive 50-minute lessons, which focus more on commodities and aspects that affect agriculture.

“We're looking at soil, we're looking at water, we're looking at dairy cows, we're looking at soybeans, potatoes and corn,” Blodgett says.

Labs are set up with 10 stations and can house up to 30 students at a time. Technology allows programming through Nearpod, which is a platform engaging students and teachers.

The pre-K class at Assumption got a lesson on forestry and the fruits and nuts that come from trees. They learned about the needs of trees, the benefits to the environment, and what products come from trees. At the end of the lesson, students made a forest bracelet adorned with elements that represent the benefits of forestry.

Third graders worked together to learn about five common dairy breeds in Michigan, including breed origins, physical traits and other unique characteristics. They also learned about the dairy process from cow to container, and a variety of products that contain dairy. In the end, students created their own dairy cow based off the traits related to their favorite type of dairy product.

"It provided a hands-on opportunity for the students to learn about the effects agriculture has in their daily lives,” says Carrie Westman, third grade teacher at Assumption. “Many students were surprised that the farming industry has such an impact on them."

Construction of the lab shell is about $300,000. The programming ebbs and flows with varying hauling expenses, supplies and payment for regional educators. “It's a big investment for Michigan Farm Bureau and our supporting contributors, but we know it’s worth it,” Blodgett says.

The mobile labs are scheduled for a minimum of two days, with a $425-per-day fee for schools.

Knowing that time and funding may be an issue for some schools, or the pure logistics of hosting the trailer, MFB is getting ready to launch a van program, which would allow an educator to go into classrooms for shorter stays.

“We have similar programs at the county Farm Bureau level that already do this,” Blodgett says. “We’re really excited about it.”

All of this complements existing farm crates ($35 per crate, or seasonally $120 for four crates) teachers can use for K-2 and 3-5 classrooms that include a virtual farm tour, an ag book and a hands-on lesson.

“On a smaller scale, this allows us to connect to what teachers are required to teach as part of state standards, and it’s another opportunity for us to grow this program and our mission,” Blodgett says.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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