Program Brings Ag Literacy to Washoe County Classrooms

Michelle Burrows, Research ScientistThe College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources has launched a new Agriculture Literacy Internship that brings UNR undergraduates into Washoe County elementary schools to teach Nevada children where their food comes from.

The program, which employs lessons from the national Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) program, was created by Michelle Burrows, a Research Scientist with CABNR. It was launched in Washoe County elementary schools in the spring of 2011. The program, open to all UNR undergraduates, gives the college students experience in teaching while delivering important agriculture information to children.

Burrows and CABNR Professor Dale Holcombe conducted a survey of more than 400 Washoe County elementary school teachers in 2009 and found strong support for bringing Ag Literacy and AITC material to Washoe County classrooms. The survey results showed that over 80 percent of Washoe County elementary teachers were unaware of Ag in the Classroom and more than 90 percent do not use AITC material.

According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) nearly 5 million students and 60,000 teachers annually participate in workshops, conferences, field trips, farm tours, and other educational activities through AITC. When most Americans lived on farms or in small towns, students often did farm chores before and after school, and old schoolbooks had numerous agricultural references. As the farming population began to decline, agricultural emphasis decreased in educational materials as well.

According to NIFA, a core group of educators and agriculturalists pushed for more youth education about agriculture. They recognized the interlocking role of farming and food and fiber production with environmental quality, which included wildlife habitat, clean water, and the preservation of forests. This group went on to promote the national effort of AITC. Today AITC across the country helps students gain a greater awareness of the role of agriculture in the economy and society so they will become citizens who support wise agricultural policies.

The survey by Burrows and Holcombe showed that more than 90 percent of Washoe County's teachers were interested in incorporating Ag in the Classroom material into their curriculum. The Agriculture Literacy Internship was created as a result.

The internship is funded through a grant from NIFA, with help from Dennis Hellwinkel, coordinator of Nevada Agriculture in the Classroom, the Nevada Rangeland Resources Commission, Nevada Agricultural Foundation and University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Michelle Burrows leading a training session on how to incorporate “Addressing Early Misconceptions About Agriculture” into their lesson plans. Burrows trains interns for six weeks before they enter a classroom.

"We talk about education, the educational system and what's expected of teachers," Burrows said. "They learn about standards and then we go into agriculture and its connection to everybody."

The lessons are delivered in one-hour sessions over four weeks, with pre- and post-tests used to determine how much the students learned. Last spring, 17 undergrad students visited 25 Washoe County schools, reaching 590 students.

The feedback from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive, Burrows said. Many have contacted Burrows about continuing lessons in their classrooms this fall.

"I would love to have you back next year. It was awesome," said one teacher. "The other fifth-grade teachers would like to know more about your program."

"It is amazing how little children know about where their food comes!" one teacher said.

Burrows and several interns from last semester are finalizing the curriculum for the new school year. They also recently completed week-long educational session at the Nevada 4-H Camp at Lake Tahoe.