Many student STEM projects are rooted in area agriculture
LISA A. GRAYBEAL | Special to LNP
It’s not a topic that immediately comes to mind while traveling through the gently rolling hills of Lancaster County’s vast agricultural landscape.
But it’s there, lurking in the barns and out in the fields. It’s there, along the rows of fruit trees and in the many food-processing facilities. It’s there, actually, on the prongs of your fork.
It is STEM, the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. All four subjects can be connected to the agriculture industry, and plenty of examples of their uses can be found right here in this county.
Even though STEM subjects must be completed in school, American students rank low among those who pursue careers in these fields, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And there are more males than females looking for jobs in these four areas.
As chairwoman of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council, I have among my goals for our organization the educating of our youth about where their food comes from and the encouraging of our younger generation to consider jobs and careers in agriculture.
The a-ha moment for me came last fall, when teachers began talking to their students about ideas for science projects.
I had the privilege of working with organizers such as Pequea Valley High School ag teacher Doug Masser and Amber Liptack and Andrew Garner, of the North Museum of Nature and Science, to cultivate the agriculture-and-science connection.
I have knowledge of dairy farming. Doug has a background in farming and ag education. We teamed up to show numerous examples in which agriculture goes way beyond the obvious categories of plant and animal sciences.
That led us to the North Museum’s annual Science & Engineering Fair, held last week at Spooky Nook Sports. It featured more than 350 projects completed by students in grades seven through 12 from Lancaster County public and private schools and home-schooled students. The Ag Council board of directors agreed to award six $150 prizes aimed at providing incentive to pursue agriculture-related projects.
Three of us volunteered to judge and we were overwhelmed by the number of projects that had a connection to agriculture. Most of the students didn’t even realize the topics they chose relate to what’s being practiced here, where they live.
In fact, the project that won grand champion this year was tied to agriculture. Manheim Township High School freshman Gaurav Mittal invented a tool that tests whether foods are genetically modified.
The Ag Council’s six award winners covered nearly every science fair category. One winner’s project unexpectedly fell into the category of behavioral and social sciences. That student measured consumer reaction to various photos of agricultural products to determine what would make them more marketable.
Another winner built a robot and used a 3-D printer to create scoops with different angles to determine which one would pick up the most material. Our agriculture-focused eyes could instantly see the potential use for this in farming.
The student hadn’t considered that, having developed the project with the idea that it could be used as a digging tool for a prosthetic arm. We suggested that the student tour the engineering department at CNH Industrial in New Holland, one of the world’s largest makers of agriculture and construction equipment.
One of our winners used various media to grow green beans hydroponically. The project supported his theory that, when done correctly, hydroponics can be a viable alternative to growing plants in soil. This student also was unaware that Lancaster County is home to several hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic farms.
In a winning project titled “Will Food Give You Gas?” it turned out that cow manure mixed with fruit waste produced the most methane gas that can be used for energy. This environmentally conscious student sought to find an alternative to fossil fuels for use in transportation. We pointed out the agriculture connection by informing the student that Lancaster County is home to many on-farm manure digesters that produce electricity.
Another student with a passion for saving trees tested the viability of using corn husks and bamboo as paper alternatives. She didn’t realize that forestry products fall under the purview of Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture.
One award winner who lives on his family’s dairy farm tested bacteria levels in milk from different sources. It clearly showed the importance of cleanliness and pasteurization.
It’s science meeting agriculture that provides us with the safe and bountiful food supply we enjoy in this country. It will continue to be important to come up with innovative ideas for feeding a growing population with fewer acres of land.
The North Museum’s motto for the science fair is “Inspire Young Scientists.” I’m hoping our efforts also serve to inspire our youth — not only to make the connection and consider a future in agriculture, but to look around and see what’s already happening here.
Lisa A. Graybeal is a dairy farmer and chairwoman of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council.