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Teachers and students work to connect agriculture and science

From left to right: Haley Mouser, Theresa Gustafson, Lily Krona (Submitted photo)1 / 6
Theresa Gustafson of Nebish, Minn., was one of three young women from Beltrami County who developed a curriculum to help young students learn more about GMOs. (Jonathan Knutson/Agweek)2 / 6
Lily Krona of Bemidji, Minn., is one of three young women from Beltrami County who developed a curriculum to help students elementary pupils learn more about GMOs. (Jonathan Knutson/Agweek)3 / 6
Minnesota teacher Amy Mastin is the 2018 National Outstanding Ag in the Classroom Teacher. (Jonathan Knutson/Agweek)4 / 6
Minnesota Ag in the Classroom held a special dinner July 12 at Little Timber Farms near Blackduck, Minn. About 60 people attended. Rachel Grey, norther Minnesota regional ag curriculum specialist for Minnesota Ag in the Classroom, operates Little Timber Farms. (Jonathan Knutson/Agweek)5 / 6
Haley Mouser of Tenstrike, Minn., was part of an award-winning project to help young students learn more about GMOs. (Jonathan Knutson/Agweek)6 / 6

BLACKDUCK, Minn. — Theresa Gustafson, Lily Krona and Haley Mouser have strong insights into educating the next generation of Americans about GMO foods.

The three Beltrami (Minn.) County teens — members of that generation themselves — put their perspective to good use when they developed an awarding-winning curriculum for teaching pupils in grades three through five about the science and value of GMO crops.

"It's so important to help the next generation learn more about science-based agricultural practices," says Mouser, 14, from Tenstrike, Minn.

Amy Mastin has professional expertise in agriculture and education, which the Minnesota teacher also put to good use. She received the 2018 Minnesota Ag in the Classroom Teacher Award and one of eight national 2018 Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture awards for her efforts in connecting agriculture and education.

"I have a passion for incorporating agriculture and science in the classroom," says Mastin, who was honored for her work in Laporte, Minn., schools. She and colleagues there launched a school garden; students grew and harvested the produce, some of which was was even used in school lunches.

Agweek visited with Gustafson, Krona, Mouser and Mastin July 12 near Blackduck, Minn., at a supper meeting sponsored by Minnesota Ag in the Classroom. About 60 people — including teachers, students and parents — attended the dinner held at Little Timber Farms, operated by Rachel Gray, northern Minnesota regional specialist for Minnesota Ag in the Classroom.

Earlier in the day, 26 of the 60 toured the University of Minnesota North Central Research and Outreach Center in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Mastin — who grew up on a southwest Minnesota farm that becomes a Century Farm this year — frequently incorporates agriculture into her classroom.

"I find so many good ways to bring agriculture into science. There's just much going on with technology in agriculture now," says Mastin, who will be teaching this year at Kelliher, Minn., where she plans to establish another school garden.

Helping students learn about agriculture is important throughout Minnesota, she says.

"People believe that because we live outside the Twin Cities, we know where our food comes from. That's not true," Mastin says. "Some of these kids have no idea where their food comes from."

"I'm running into a lot of kids who believe that GMOs are bad, that "big ag" is bad. So dispelling myths is one of the first things we talk about," Mastin says. "And I do that through science, because there's so much science to back up conventional farming practices."

Mastin doesn't hesitate when asked about the best way to engage young people in agriculture.

"Technology. You bring technology into something, the kids will eat it up," Mastin says. "They think anything in technology is way cool."

Gustafson, Krona and Mouser think ag is cool, and they want to share their enthusiasm.

So they formed their "Future Generation" team to compete in the 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge, which promotes excitement and interest in ag, science and engineering. In the competition, teams of three to five students in grades six through 12 identify science-based solutions to a problem in their community, then work with a local adult mentor.

Gustafson, Krona and Mouser decided to tackle widespread misinformation and lack of knowledge about GMOs, enlisting Gray as their mentor.

Future Generation's solution to the problem: Get good information to students at a young age.

"Studies show that students lose interest as early as the third grade, so it's important to catch them before that happens," says Gustafson, 14, from Nebish, Minn.

Krona, 15, from Bemidji, says that working with third-graders in the project was especially enjoyable.

In the project, the team worked with 225 students in 11 classrooms. Before Future Generation's lessons, no students in five of the 11 classrooms could define GMOs and more than half of the students hadn't even heard of GMOs. After the lessons — activities and animations geared to third-to-fifth-graders — 10 of the 11 classrooms could define genetic engineering and GMO and all 11 classrooms could name the 10 genetically engineered crops.

"What they (members of Future Generation) accomplished is so impressive," Gray says.

Judges in the state 4-H Science of Ag Challenge thought so, too. The project took first place in the recent annual competition held at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Gustafson, Krona and Mouser are interested in expanding the curriculum they developed but say it's too early to be specific about what they might do.

State program

Minnesota Ag in the Classroom, which receives private and public funds, seeks "to improve student achievement by applying authentic, agricultural-based content as the context to teach core curriculum concepts in science, social studies, language arts and nutrition."

The program operates across the state, not only in Minneapolis-St. Paul. All services are free, and most materials are free, Gray says.

"We're open to helping anyone interested in ag education," she says.

For more information, go to https://minnesota.agclassroom.org.

To see the Beltrami County team's animation, "Do you know GMO?" go to https://www.facebook.com/Minnesota4H.

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