Penn State Harrisburg workshop explores agriculture in the classroom

The workshop connected teachers with new technology and skills for their students
A teacher looks at Raspberry Pi computer parts while learning about coding

Teachers learned new skills, including computer coding, to help them incorporate agriculture in their classrooms during a weeklong workshop held at Penn State Harrisburg over the summer.

Credit: Sharon Siegfried

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — A weeklong professional development workshop held this summer at Penn State Harrisburg helped teachers explore new ways to incorporate agriculture into their classrooms.

Penn State’s Center for Science and the Schools partnered with professors from Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Science, Engineering and Technology, and the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11 to hold the workshop, titled “Expanding Youth Involvement in Exploring Exciting Employment Directions in Agriculture.”

CSATS “partners with scientists and engineers to build programs for schools,” said Kathy Hill, CSATS director and associate professor of science education.

The center worked with Penn State Harrisburg professors Sairam Rudrabhatla, Shobha Potlakayala, and Anilchandra Attaluri to show how aspects of their research can be used in classrooms, in order to “give students opportunities to engage in science and engineering — in the ways that scientists and engineers really work,” Hill added.

Tiffany Lewis, CSATS STEM education specialist, said, “We leverage the practices of researchers to design learning experiences for younger students so they better understand what the work of science and engineering is.” It’s a good method of workforce development, she added, because precollege students get the chance to really “try on” the careers.

Rudrabhatla, professor of biology and director of the Central Pennsylvania Research and Teaching Laboratory for Biofuels, said the workshop is an effort to train teachers on the new technology, so they are equipped to expose students to biotechnology or biomedical engineering, for example.

“Science is ever-changing. The key is that you have to engage and motivate students by exposing them to new technology and adapt them to new teaching standards” he said.

Potlakayala, associate teaching professor of biology and co-principal investigator of the Central Pennsylvania Research and Teaching Laboratory for Biofuels, emphasized the importance of training teachers in STEM disciplines and how it could be translated to middle and high school students to improve the quality of their STEM education.

Throughout the week, teachers from the Harrisburg region, and as far away as Rhode Island, participated in activities including learning how to automate hydroponics systems and to carry out plant tissue culture and breeding.

Early in the week, the teachers learned the basics of coding as Attaluri, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and representatives of the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11 helped them learn how to set up automated hydroponic systems — technology that has been around a while but facilitates a huge job market.

“The next generation jobs are going to be very different,” said Attaluri. “These smaller, new age skills are important.”

Students need active learning, he said, and the workshop helps teachers scale down complex projects so they can be implemented in classrooms.

Eric Yoder, coordinator of educational technology at Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11, said the workshop was timely because new science standards being implemented in Pennsylvania emphasize hands-on learning and science practices.

Jigar Patel, coordinator for innovation and special projects at the intermediate unit, noted that the workshop ties together multiple disciplines – computer science, math, engineering and biology.

“It showcases the interdisciplinary nature of what the real world looks like,” he said.

Krista Farner, a sixth-grade teacher in the Central Dauphin School District and a Penn State Harrisburg alum, said she’s been interested in bringing the concept of agriculture into her classroom. Even though her students are a bit younger, she found ways she can make the content from the workshop applicable for them. She was excited to share ideas with colleagues.

“We’ve got to change the way we approach science instruction — getting kids to actually be able to apply a science or engineering practice,” she said.

Rudrabhatla expressed appreciation to Vahid Motevalli, director of the School of Science, Engineering, and Technology, and Michelle Mason, a former science teacher, for their support of the event.

“I am extremely grateful to both of them, in addition to my own team from Penn State Harrisburg and the Center for Science and the Schools,” he said.