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Second-grade students at Monroe Road Elementary in Lambertville, Mich., have fun as they learn about soil nutrition through interactive lessons developed by the Nutrients for Life Foundation and Discovery Education.

Digital dirt

by Peg Zenk, CHS Contributing Writer

Apr 07, 2017

The students in Cheryl Lykowski’s second-grade class learn the basics of plant growth and food production from the ground up. But for their introduction to soil science, little fingers often start with swipes across a screen and not through the dirt.
Planting actual seeds in real soil comes later in the unit on plants, but at Monroe Road Elementary, in Lambertville, Mich., online modules developed by the Nutrients for Life Foundation and Discovery Education give Lykowski an interactive option to teach kids about soil properties and plant growth.

“The online tools allow me to cover things with the whole class and manipulate the content as we go,” she says. “The digital format lets students try different things and make mistakes they can learn from, without the hassle and expense of having actual lab materials for all the 50 students I teach in two class sections.”

Kids Love Technology

Kids are drawn to technology, says Lykowski, who’s taught preschool and elementary grades for 26 years. “My students can’t wait to use iPads — they’re really the ‘swipe generation.’ Sometimes they even forget when they’re using desktop computers and try to swipe on the screens.

“I want to take advantage of that enthusiasm for learning by using a wide variety of teaching materials and online resources. Discovery Education has some great content, such as 'The Science of Soil' module,” she says.

In 2014 the Nutrients for Life Foundation (NLF), a charitable arm of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), partnered with Discovery Education (affiliated with the Discovery Channel) to produce an online destination, “From the Ground Up: The Science of Soil.” Designed for middle-school students, the modules use kid-friendly interactive strategies to illustrate the importance of soil, nutrients and the science behind sustainable agricultural practices. They provide lesson plans, interactive tools, family activities in English and Spanish, and agricultural career profiles.

The first module, “Not All Soils Are Created Equal,” uses interactive maps to show how soil types differ across the United States and how the differences impact a farmer’s crop choices and management decisions. In the second module, “Explore Plant Nutrients,” students make choices about an on-screen corn crop that illustrate how water, sunlight and nutrients affect plant growth.

The latest module, “Your Day With NPK,” allows students to navigate through soil testing and fertilizer application calculations to grow a prize-winning crop.

“These fact-based materials do a great job of telling the farmer’s story, explaining why efficient fertilizer use is essential in modern food production,” says Jeff Greseth, vice president, supply and trading, CHS Agronomy, who represents CHS on The Fertilizer Institute’s board of directors. “They were developed for teachers, by teachers to meet state science standards. Teacher response to them has been really positive.” He adds that TFI, CHS and others support the NLF and development of these educational resources.

In 2016 alone, 167,848 teachers used resources developed by NLF, which reached more than 4 million students, says Harriet Wegmeyer, the group’s executive director. “During the past four years, resources we’ve produced have impacted nearly 30 million people.”

Good Fit for Any Age

In his fast-paced science classroom at Pattonville High School in a northwest suburb of St. Louis, Rob Lamb is always looking for new science-based information sources to liven up his lessons. “I regularly use parts of 'The Science of Soil' modules in my geology, physical science and chemistry classes,” says the 13-year teaching veteran and last year’s winner of the National Science Teachers Association Robert E. Yager Excellence in Teaching Award.

“I might use part of a video or infographic as a teaser into a subject or to generate discussion,” he says. “The ‘Your Day With NPK’ module is great for my freshman general science class. Its colorful graphics, game-like format and basic reading level make it easy for students to get into, and there’s a lot of good science behind it.

“I also like that these programs make career connections, as do most of the Discovery Education materials,” he notes. “Kids are interested in seeing that there are job options they never knew existed in agriculture, like agronomist or production engineer at a fertilizer plant or GPS expert. They may live only a few miles away from farm fields, but most of my students have never been on a farm or worked in the soil.”

Both Lamb and Lykowski say another favorite microsite feature is Virtual Field Trips. “They give kids the chance to see things and hear from people they would never experience otherwise,” says Lykowski. Along with video tours, the field trips include demonstrations, hands-on activities and question-and-answer sessions with experts.

“I was able to take a few of my students to a local farm to be part of one of the live programs on 'The Science of Soil' site, but having the field trips archived on the Nutrients for Life website makes them a great resource that we can use again and again,” adds Lamb. “Any time you can find real-world connections to abstract topics, the kids will learn more.”

One of the biggest classroom shifts in recent years has been to more technology use, he notes. “Instead of telling them to open their books, I say ‘Everyone get out your laptops and go to this link.’ In our flipped classroom, the students are helping to drive the discussions we have. Having access to factual, interactive resources they can search for information is an important element to learning.

“Kids can find all kinds of information instantly on the internet, but they need to be able to evaluate what they find — whether it is fact or opinion,” he says. “I’m trying to teach them science literacy.” 

Check out the full C Magazine with this article and more.

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