Photo by Mary Rezac
Eighth grader Valentina Fowler pokes holes in a styrofoam cup while classmate Rana Aribi studies a basil plant.
In their hydr op onics unit, eighth graders at Lincoln's Culler Middle School float plants in styrofoam cups in water as an alternative way of growing herbs.
Dirt flew in Kevin Atterberg's eighth grade class as the kids prepared basil, chives and other plants to grow in water, known as a hydroponic system of agriculture.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau named the Lincoln teacher as one of two Ag Teachers of the Year last year for innovative new curriculum called Ag in the City, an advanced eighth-grade science class exploring various aspects of the field of agriculture.
The Culler Middle School teacher attended the Summer Soybean Institute in 2012, where he was supposed to come away with more knowledge about soybeans and one lesson plan. He left with a vision for an entire classroom year.
"I started thinking about my students and how especially in the state of Nebraska, agriculture is huge," said Atterberg, who is in his third year teaching.
"About 30-40 percent of my kids will get a job in agriculture," Atterberg said. He said his class discusses all kinds of agriculture-related fields in their careers unit, such as food science or horticulture, to ensure their view of agriculture is "not just farming."
Besides careers, the major pillars of Nebraska agriculture--corn, beef and soybeans--are studied as well as nutrition and soil. The second semester of the class focuses on lab experiments with soybeans in a partnership with University of Nebraska Agricultural Youth Council Members.
A student favorite so far has been feeling inside a cow's stomach, courtesy of the UNL Beef Mobile which brings the animal to the kids. The students are able to see and feel into the stomach, or rumen, through a rubber opening called a fistula that is used for scientific observations.
"The cow unit was huge," Atterberg said, "because a cow was here. The kids love it because they get to see the cow and touch the inside of the cow. It's also one of their first experiences with a microscope, watching bacteria from a cow's stomach."
Among other hands-on experiences, Atterberg's eighth graders dye shirts with soil ("dirt shirts," they call them), grow seeds in plastic gloves and go on field trips to Prairieland Dairy in Firth, Neb., Epona Horse Rescue in Crete, Neb. and real live farms in and around Lancaster County.
Eighth grader Fatima Al-Sammak said her favorite project so far had been the hydroponic plants.
"It was a hands-on activity, we got to plant something and we get to watch it grow and change over time," she said."It's just fun and I wish every school had this."
Angel Mai said she's learned about the importance of agriculture and recalled an activity about soil in class.
"One day [Mr. Atterberg] gave us all apples and we cut them in half, and then half again, until they were cut into sixteenths. Then we peeled the skin off of one piece, and that's how much soil we can use to grow things on Earth," the eighth grader relayed.
Atterberg said he hopes his class piques his students' interest in agriculture that perhaps wasn't there before.
"I wanted them to know what's out there. My goal is to get them into high school and also make sure they're ready to go for college. I want every single one of them to go to college," Atterberg said.
"Who knows, there might be a horticulturalist sitting here in my class and they've just never seen this before. Now they could go to college and study plants and be fine."
Atterberg said he works closely with Ag in the Classroom, a program sponsored by the Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture, which connects teachers to agriculture resources for the classroom. Atterberg also created a website for his class, which compiles games and resources about agriculture for his students into one spot.
Ag in the City is in its second year at Culler, and Atterberg already has big plans for the future.
"My dream is to push this out to other schools. My dream is to have a community garden with master gardeners who come in and show my students how to garden," Atterberg said. "I also would really love a greenhouse so we could have an outdoor classroom."
Atterberg grew up in Iowa, in the country but not on a farm. While he's always been surrounded by agriculture by the mere fact that he lives in the Midwest, he said he never learned much about it until recently.
"When I got this teaching job, I thought this was a perfect way to learn more about it. I get really excited about it, because it's fun stuff," he said.
"But I wouldn't keep doing it if the kids didn't like it. Last year's class loved it. They all seem to really enjoy it."