Elkhart schools looking to expand new agriscience program

(AP Photo/Daily Reporter/Tom Russo)
(AP Photo/Daily Reporter/Tom Russo)

ELKHART, Ind. (AP) — Big plans are in the works for the newly developed agriscience department in the Elkhart Community Schools.

With Elkhart County standing as the second-largest agricultural county in Indiana, Elkhart schools staff members have embraced the need for agricultural education.

“It’s an aspect of our area that we have really overlooked,” said ag coordinator Cyndy Keeling.

The agriscience program was adopted last year and teachers were trained. Nineteen science teachers in the middle schools were trained in the new agriscience practices and there are currently eight classes between the three middle schools – Pierre Moran, North Side and West Side.

“The corporation itself is really committed to it,” said Mark Schroeder, West Side science department chair and agriscience teacher.

Schroeder, a former eighth-grade science teacher who also teaches honors biology, had concerns when the program was first adopted.

“Initially, I was a bit worried about it,” he said.

But he quickly discovered that the class would benefit his students beyond a traditional science structure.

“It has everything from cell biology, chemistry, disease, botany, anatomy,” Schroeder added. “It covers a very wide range … and is aligned with current next generation curriculum as well.”

Students are learning about pH, how it affects life and how to balance acids.

“We can take science to the next level as we approach it from an agricultural standpoint,” Schroeder said.

Students who learn about pH levels and acidity can take that information and apply it to home gardening or to better understanding how their one body functions.

“When we started, (students) didn’t know where their food came from,” Schroeder said. “Their food came from Martin’s, it came from Kroger, it came from Walmart.”

This year, only eighth graders are taking agriscience class, but signs of a district-wide push toward agricultural-based learning are beginning to emerge.

In the middle schools, plans to expand the already large agriscience program include the introduction of Future Farmers of America in the spring, as well as the creation of a community garden on the West Side campus where students can earn class credit.

The agriscience curriculum also has an entire section on communication skills, designed to teach students who will eventually go into the FFA program. “It goes cross curriculum quite a bit,” Schroeder explained.

Each middle school classroom in the district received 20 lab test collection kits, probes, pH meters, temperature sensors, solar panels and carbon dioxide detectors as well as 30 Chromebooks.

At the high school, agriscience will be implemented in the fall and follow current eighth graders through their high school years. There will also be an FFA group at the high school beginning in the fall.

Elementary schools in Elkhart have begun steering students in early grades to appreciate agriculture. Through the school’s own farm, called the Agriculture Community Center for Environmental Learning Lab – or ACCELL – teachers can take their classes to learn about agriculture and farming.

This fall, some classes will plant pumpkins to harvest next fall.

“I think they’re giving kids options that they never knew they had,” Schroeder said.