The science of farming


By Rebecca Pfeufer and Christine Ziegler-Ulsh

Without soil biology and nutrient cycling, humans would have no food to eat – no grains, no dairy, no eggs, no meat. This was the network of interactions 60 Reading High School 10th grade biology students learned when they came to the Rodale Institute farm late last fall for hands-on soil biology experience. The students, their teacher Christine Pellegrini, and their other teacher-chaperones were here for a practical follow-up to the in-class lab lecture they had the week before.  At the end of October, we had traveled to Reading High School to give the students an introduction to the concepts of soil biology and soil nutrient cycling and how they directly influence their everyday lives.

The introduction to soil biology the students received in their lab classes created a basis for all the related things they saw when they visited the farm: biology, geology and the world of organics. Students were able to see first-hand the healthy soils and plants that were generated by the microbiology and carbon interactions they learned about in the classroom. The project was developed in partnership with Reading High School science instructor Christine Pellegrini and was made possible by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP).

The students had some initial apprehension about visiting a farm. Some major student concerns were: What do I wear? Will I get dirty? Are we going to see cows? But once they arrived, everyone actively participated. In November the farm is not exactly bursting with life, but there was still plenty to experience. They were immersed in a full sensory experience: smelling lavender and lemon balm, tasting peppers that survived the frost, feeling soil texture, hearing the chickens from all corners of the farm, and seeing the rolling hills and landscape.

For many this was their first time on a farm, so there was a lot for them to take in. Students got their hands dirty analyzing soil samples they retrieved themselves, selecting herbs from the demonstration garden, and planting sunflower and bean plants to take away with them.

The students’ pre- and post-visit evaluations illustrate exactly how much they gained from their experience. Many of the pre-test assessments had completely unanswered sections. The students did not have an understanding of the terminology or basics associated with soil science, demonstrating the need for this kind of material in their educational curricula.

The follow-up tests, on the other hand, had not only attempts at answering, but many more correct answers. Introducing students to the soil-food cycles in the classroom gave them the foundational knowledge. Seeing the application of these foundations functioning in nature gave them an even deeper understanding of the carbon and nitrogen cycles and how the soil and above-ground food webs impact and are impacted by those cycles. They gained a greater awareness of plants and their chemistry, as well as how all these pieces together create the environment we live in and the food we eat.

Students listed the wetlands restroom, greenhouses, and looking at bees under a dissecting microscope as their most memorable experiences on the farm. Others found the chickens and cows to be most interesting, explaining it is not every day they see these farm animals. In some cases, this was the first time they really viewed these animals not just as fascinating living creatures but as a part of their own personal food web. The organic apple cider made from Rodale Institute apples that Mrs. Pellegrini kindly sponsored proved to be a big hit and provided another way for the students to connect what they put in their mouths to the land on which they were walking and to the soil science they were learning in class.

Beyond the traditional education gathered in the two-day class, there was an opportunity for all the participants to share their personal experiences. Students talked about their own gardening experience or their interest in starting a garden at their own home or in their communities. Being a recent college graduate, Rodale Institute seasonal research technician Rebecca Pfeufer was able to talk with them about what she studied in college and how that landed her at the Rodale Institute in a position where she can educate others. Christine Ziegler-Ulsh, Rodale Institute research agro-ecologist and science editor, talked with the students about the research work she does, what it involves, and what kind of training she received that led her to her position. These conversations gave the students tangible examples of potential career paths related to science and food, most of which the students were not aware even existed.

Before the classroom experience, students were unfamiliar with the chain of production and transport required to get food to the table every day. By the time the students left Rodale Institute, they had a basic working knowledge of the farming community and the role plants play in their lives. They felt more informed about the food they would have previously taken for granted—produce, dairy, eggs and meat alike.

A written curriculum is now in development based upon this collaborative and experiential learning project. The goal is to share this project with other schools around the area and even across the state.

The students weren’t the only ones to walk away enriched by the experience. Working with Mrs. Pellegrini and her students on this project gave Rodale Institute staff the opportunity to do the kind of work that brought us into this field in the first place: sharing our love and appreciation for agriculture and the environment with people who want to learn more about it, and igniting understanding and appreciation in others.

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