Soybean Business: Teachable moments

This story was first featured in the September-October 2017 issue of Soybean Business. Click here to view the digital version.

For more than 30 years, one innovative program has used a unique approach to increase the connection people have to agriculture, beginning at an early age. 

The Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom (MAITC) program was established in 1985 as a unique public/private partnership between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the state’s agricultural and educational communities. MAITC’s goal is to improve student achievement by applying agricultural-based content to teach core curriculum such as science, social studies, language arts and nutrition. 

MAITC Education Specialist Sue Knott says the program connected with 525 Minnesota schools by providing print resources during the 2016-’17 school year. Knott, a former teacher, says the contacts have occurred in both rural and urban areas. 

“Students in urban schools may not have agricultural opportunities in their communities,” Knott says, “but even if a student is from a rural area that doesn’t mean they’re connected to agriculture. Ag literacy can be grown in all areas.” 

Connecting with Teachers

The MAITC program reaches students by connecting with teachers and providing them with educational resources. Materials meet academic standards and are available for students from kindergarten to 12th grade, free of charge. 

“If we can get teachers to use our materials, they learn and become more agriculture literate and better understand agriculture’s role in everyday life,” Knott says. 

For much of the program’s existence, the AgMag has been MAITC’s flagship tool. AgMag targets students with entertaining and educational quizzes and activities. Knott says more than 36,000 AgMag magazines were sent out to students in grades 4-6 by request during the 2016-’17 school year, and another 14,500 AgMag Jr. magazines by request to K-1st graders. 

MAITC is part of a nationwide network, which increases the resources available to students. Knott says an exciting development is an online matrix that includes lesson plans and companion resources like videos and collateral materials teachers can use. 

Lesson plan examples include introducing students to seed cycles by showcasing how soybeans are grown. The lesson teaches seed anatomy through a seed dissection activity, and illustrates the germination of the soybean plant. 

Another lesson teaches students about soybeans as they investigate the work of an agricultural scientist and engineer who found new uses for soybeans. This lesson can be used as an opportunity to discuss careers in science and engineering, biobased products, and the use of renewable resources. 

Team Effort

The MDA supports the ongoing development of educational materials, teacher professional development and program marketing and outreach, while the MAITC Foundation raises and manages private sector funds to fulfill program needs. 

Dozens of individuals and organizations, including the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC), support MAITC efforts. 

“I firmly believe that as we get more people removed from agriculture, it’s the farmer’s responsibility to plant the seeds of ag literacy,” says Morgan, Minn., farmer and MATIC Foundation Executive Director Joel Mathiowetz. “Students are getting further removed from agriculture, so having an open, unbiased approach is a real benefit.” 

Although fewer students have a direct connection to farming and agriculture, an exploding interest in how food is produced is opening doors for greater interaction and education. 

“It’s an exciting time to share our story,” Mathiowetz says. “There is a new appetite for what we are sharing because there is more excitement about where food comes from, and that presents a greater opportunity for discussion and engagement.” 

“Everyone in agriculture wants to share their story and the general population wants to know where their food comes from,” Knott says. “They want to connect with those who produce their food and connect with the story of agriculture. Because the kids that we are reaching will be tomorrow’s decision-makers and parents, we want to give them a solid background and a better understanding of how their food is produced.”

Another role MAITC fills is training the trainers. Knott says they connected with nearly 600 college education students and more than 300 in-service teachers through professional development workshops during the 2016-’17 school year. 

Mathiowetz says enthusiasm for Ag in the Classroom continues to grow. He says it’s important as ever that the agriculture industry works to educate. 

“Every year there’s a new crop of students, so we have to continually cultivate that ag literacy,” he says. “It’s a never-ending cycle.”

Mathiowetz says it costs about $30 per year to support a classroom. Individuals or organizations that would like to contribute to the MAITC outreach efforts can contact Mathiowetz at maitcfoundation@aol.com 

To learn more about Minnesota Ag in the Classroom, or to access teaching resources, visit minnesota.agclassroom.org.