Contextualizing Science Phenomena within Agriculture for Problem Solving

Workshop Focus
Modern agriculture is complex and requires a workforce of innovators and critical thinkers to meet the needs of a growing population. The complexity of agriculture includes the ability to conserve and use natural resources in a sustainable manner and apply scientific knowledge and engineering practices to develop technologies to solve problems in a changing environment. Agricultural scientists and engineers use their knowledge of life science and physical science along with critical thinking to solve problems with constraints. At the same time, they are trying to minimize risks, ensure economic viability, and maintain environmental quality. In this workshop, participants will engage in phenomena-based investigations that lead to experiential activities in a contextual storyline to solve problems in our food and fiber production and processing systems.

Providing the food, clothing, shelter, and fuel for a growing population—nearly 10 billion in 2050—requires critical thinking skills related to science literacy (Vieira & Tenreiro-Vieira, 2016) and sustainability. The Framework for K-12 Science (National Research Council, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) outline the necessary practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas that are required to solve the real-world problems of a growing population.

This new paradigm requires a shift in pedagogical strategies and methods with implications for science teacher educators, technology educators, professional development providers, and instructional designers who build resources to support new science curricula. Interestingly, while these educational leaders are connected to agriculture daily (food, clothing and shelter), they may be unaware of the complexity and the science understanding required to solve agricultural problems sustainably to meet the needs of nearly 10 billion people by 2050. This workshop will provide classroom-ready resources and model instructional approaches to highlight phenomena and storyline agricultural episodes to contextualize investigations. Phenomena in science can be explained and explored in storylines (German, 2018; Reiser, 2013), and agricultural content can provide a rich context for investigation into real-world problem solving.

Today’s teachers and pre-service teachers are facilitating the learning of students who—through science and engineering—will need to solve the challenge as to how to sustainably feed nearly 10 billion people within the next 30 years. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has predicted that farmers—with the support of scientists and engineers—will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009) with no additional natural resources! This type of “real-world” context provides support for students with a “rich network of connected ideas that serve as a conceptual tool for explaining phenomena, solving problems and making decisions” (Krajcik, Codere, Dahsah, Bayer, & Mun, 2014, p. 159).

Presenter Experience
Debra Spielmaker is a professor at Utah State University (USU) and has been an educator for more than 30 years. She began her career as a high school and middle school agricultural science teacher and then spent 18 years directing the Utah State University – Utah Agriculture in the Classroom program. As director of the Utah Agriculture in the Classroom program (1994-2013), Debra provided professional development to over 15,000 K-12 in-service (practicing teachers) and pre-service teachers and developed a comprehensive, dynamic, credible, and nationally recognized Agriculture in the Classroom Program. The curricular resources she developed for the Utah K-12 science core standards used agriculture as a context for learning science related to weather, soil, water, land use, microorganisms, genetics, sustainable agriculture, environmental science, and plant and animal science. These curricular resources were made available electronically and are still used nationwide. This success resulted in her selection as the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Project Director.

In 2013, Debra earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction and began teaching and conducting research with teachers entering the graduate program in the School of Applied Sciences, Technology, and Education at USU. Dr. Spielmaker became the Project Director for the USDA-NIFA’s agricultural literacy program in 2012 and is currently the team leader for the National Center for Agricultural Literacy. Dr. Spielmaker co-authored the National Agricultural Literacy Outcomes (2014) and developed the National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix (2015) which is an online, searchable, and standards-based curriculum map for K-12 teachers. The Matrix contextualizes national education standards in science, social studies, and nutrition education with relevant instructional resources linked to Common Core Standards. The searchable database includes over 400 lesson plans and more than 600 supportive companion resources. In 2015, Dr. Spielmaker completed work on the new Utah seventh grade required course, College and Career Awareness. She was responsible for the creation and professional development of the project-based learning instruction integrating STEM and careers. Dr. Spielmaker was the recipient of the 2017 Utah Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology for K-12 Education.

Lynn Wallin is an Education Specialist at the National Center for Agricultural Literacy (NCAL) at Utah State University. Prior to her work with NCAL, Lynn was an Education Specialist for Utah Agriculture in the Classroom working with elementary education pre-service teachers at eight undergraduate institutions. Lynn has 14 years of public school teaching and has taught grades 1, 2, 3, and 4 in Utah and Arizona. Four years were spent teaching at Edith Bowen Laboratory School on the campus of Utah State University. The mission of the Edith Bowen Laboratory School “is to ensure high levels of learning for all elementary students, by providing a positive and engaging learning environment using effective evidence-based practice; to mentor pre-service teachers through instruction and classroom-based experiences; and to review, conduct, implement, and disseminate educational research.” Lynn has engaged in research, professional learning communities of practice, and mentored many student teachers. Lynn received a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Brigham Young University and a master’s of education from Utah State University.

Max L. Longhurst is an assistant professor and science teacher educator in USU’s School of Teacher Education and Leadership. Dr. Longhurst prepares students for careers as elementary and middle school science teachers. He educates and mentors students and practicing teachers at all levels, and his abilities have been recognized twice (once in 2004 and again in 2014) by the Utah Science Teachers Association with the award of Higher Education Teacher of the Year. His research focuses on the appropriation of professional learning in science education. He holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and instruction from Utah State University (2015), a master’s degree in Instruction and Curriculum from Arizona State University (1995), and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Brigham Young University (1993). Dr. Longhurst has directed local and large-scale professional development programs providing instructional learning experiences for educators. Currently he coordinates the Elementary STEM Endorsement program at Utah State University.

Learning Objective
Through workshop modeling and investigations, participants will be able to identify agricultural science phenomena and connect these phenomena to topics in the Next Generation Science Standards to construct their own storyline sequences and experiential activities.

Workshop Activities
Participants will investigate agricultural science phenomena through storyline episodes and experiential hands-on activities while making explicit connections to science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and various disciplinary core ideas. Specific phenomena to be investigated with hands-on activities include: “Why does popcorn pop?” (science concept to explain), “How can we get more kernels to pop?” (engineering problem), “Where do all the leaves and dead stuff go?” (science concept to explain), “How can we decompose organic matter more quickly to feed plants?” (engineering problem), “Why do some plants die in a drought while others live?” (science concept to explain), “How can we modify plants to survive in a drought” (engineering problem), “Why do weeds grow in fields even when they aren’t planted” (science concept to explain), “How can we kill all the weeds and keep the plants we want in a field?” (engineering problem), “What spoils milk?” (science concept to explain), and “How can we keep milk from going bad or lasting longer?” (engineering problem).

Continued Collaboration & Learning
Participants will be provided with full access to all the resources shared in the workshop. Participants will be encouraged to share their ideas for phenomena-based instruction through the National Center for Agricultural Literacy social networks and publish their phenomena-based lesson plans on the National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix, The presenters are available through and are willing to present agricultural science phenomena investigations to pre-service and in-service teachers though Nepris or other video conferencing tools. Participants will also be provided with a list of state agricultural literacy contacts who are available for collaboration and local presentations.