Teacher Rachel Sanders with students in the ag biotech class at the Global Impact STEM Academy.

First of Its Kind

Like many of her classmates, Beth Lenz resists the temptation to pop an orange M&M into her mouth and instead drops it into a cup for a biotechnology experiment. She swirls a dye solution around the candy, waiting patiently for the M&M to turn white. The purpose of the experiment is two-fold: it’s setting the stage for the ninth-grade students to start doing DNA fingerprinting and to see if the candies contain dyes that some studies suggest may cause allergies or hyperactivity in children. For Lenz, it’s the perfect mixture of science and real world situations.

“When I come to school, I have so much fun that when I go home, I don’t mind doing homework—I really enjoy the learning,” she said. “It’s so much better than having somebody lecture to you.”

Joshua Jennings is thrilled to hear Lenz’s response. He’s head of the Global Impact STEM Academy in Springfield. The school is the first of its kind in Ohio to offer high school students hands-on learning of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with a focus on agbioscience. Last August, the school opened its doors to 46 ninth-grade students and is temporarily housed at Clark State Community College. The goal is to move into the vacant Springfield South High School building and grow to 400 students.

The idea for the school came out of a 2009 Clark County Farm Bureau public policy meeting attended by state Sen. Chris Widener. He was intrigued by comments that there needed to be more agriculture-based classes to fill a growing agbioscience industry and pushed for establishment of the school. The academy’s partners are Clark Community College, Ohio State University and Wright State University. The county Farm Bureau has been a strong supporter of the school and is part of its 14-member board.

“The kids here are very bright, and we are helping create a pipeline of talent to fill jobs in the agbioscience industry, mostly what I call ‘lab coat jobs’,” Jennings said, noting that only a couple of the students have a farm background.

The academy offers hands-on learning in the food, agriculture, environmental studies and healthcare industries while satisfying the basic high school graduation requirements. The students attend the nontraditional school for a variety of reasons.

For Wesley Sizemore, he likes the emphasis on STEM because he wants to be a biotechnology engineer. Sammy Dyson, who wants to go into radiation oncology, likes the internship possibilities and hopes to earn up to two years of college credit. And Alex Madden, who was homeschooled, feels welcome in the new school.

“It’s so hands on, it’s amazing. I love it,” said Madden, whose favorite project of the year was helping make a documentary on the history of the Gilded Age for American History class.

Jamie Lesesky, who teaches government, loves stimulating the creative side of her students. On this day, her students are making stop motion animation videos that demonstrate the topic they have been researching. One group is using Lego figures to illustrate how the actions of the Boston Tea Party helped establish colonists’ independence from Great Britain. The finished videos eventually became the lesson plan for the entire class.

“Government is hard to make interesting so I’m always looking for creative ways to teach it,” said Lesesky who participated earlier this year in a two-week “doomsday curriculum” with the scenario that zombies took over the world. In social studies, the students looked at which components of the U.S. Constitution would be most important for a new society. In math they investigated the zombie disease’s spread by analyzing exponential relationships in data using graphs and tables on a graphing calculator. And in biology they examined various ways that viruses, germs and bacteria can spread by swabbing local objects and documenting the subsequent growth.

“Every day students see the relevance of the subjects and how to use them in the real world,” Jennings said. “It’s very exciting to see the students embrace the project-based learning and go beyond the classroom.”

Ag-related classes being added to college, high school curriculums
To meet the growing demand for agriculture-related jobs, Ohio’s high schools and colleges are offering more agbioscience classes and agribusiness degrees. This fall Urbana University is starting a four-year agribusiness degree that will focus on agriculture-related jobs in accounting, management and marketing. Clark State Community College started a new program this year in precision agriculture that will train students how to interpret data gathered from unmanned aerial systems, and Central State University has received land grant status, which makes it eligible for federal grants related to agricultural research and development.

At Ohio State University, 2013 enrollment in agriculture, environment and natural resources increased 7.2 percent compared to a year ago. Of those graduates, 92 percent were employed or in graduate/professional school within six months of graduation.

Biotechnology classes that focus on agriculture are becoming more popular in high schools. This year at Anthony Wayne, a Penta Career Center satellite school in northwest Ohio, the students did nutritional trials on 50 broiler chickens kept in a welding booth, grew poinsettias and Easter lilies and did a study of GMOs vs. organics vs. nonorganics and the challenge of feeding a growing world.

“Over a third of our research projects are agriculture based. In the past, we didn’t have a single student doing ag-based projects,” said Andrea Harpen, a former Procter & Gamble chemical engineer who now teaches chemistry and physics at Blanchester High School in southwest Ohio. Project examples include making a homemade anaerobic digester to produce methane, looking at the performance of biodiesel vs. diesel and calculating the amount of waste oil from nearby restaurants that could be turned into fuel.

“All the fields of agriculture are opening up because you’ve got to double the output of food to feed (a projected) 9 billion people in 2050,” Harpen said. “That’s going to entail going all the way up the food chain from farmer to processor to food and plant scientists and doing it in a sustainable way.”

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Amy Graves 

Amy Graves is a communications specialist for Ohio Farm Bureau.