Inspiration on Wheels
BY JUSTIN SOUZA
Even here, in the United States’ most productive agricultural region, most schoolchildren don’t really understand where their food comes from. And they certainly don’t know about the high-tech, cutting edge science jobs that drive modern agriculture.
Enter the National Ag Science Center, based in Modesto. The Center was founded in 2010 to inspire students to seek careers in agriculture through an interactive, hands-on educational experience for middle school children in the form of an immersive agricultural science lab.
The center had a lineup of private investors, foundation grants and an outstanding curriculum, but there was one problem: repeated belt tightening at Stanislaus County’s schools meant that a stationary science lab would be all- but-inaccessible to a large portion of the county’s middle schoolers.
By 2011, the Ag Science Center had its solution: Ag in Motion, a state-of-the art ag science laboratory built inside a converted 53-foot moving truck.
“It was very grassroots,” remembers Michele Laverty, Director of the National Ag Science Center. “Our board decided to build the mobile laboratory and then reached out to other programs on the East Coast and in Southern California to see what models they have and how we could tweak it to what we do. We’re the only one in the nation that focuses on agriculture, and we’re also the only one big enough to put 40 kids inside.”
Between September and May, Ag in Motion’s distinctive trailer can be now be seen on the blacktop of the more than 40 private and public middle schools in Stanislaus County. Each year, the innovative mobile lab introduces agricultural science to about 15,000 seventh and eighth graders.
“This is very much a community based project,” Laverty said. “This is all privately funded through small foundation grants and private donors. It’s totally free to all the schools and the kids. And the beauty of bringing our mobile lab to campuses is that every student gets to participate.”
On a recent morning, Ag in Motion was parked outside of Waterford Middle School. Inside the mobile lab, Instructor Alyssa Guzman led about 18 seventh graders through the process of extracting long strands of DNA from a strawberry.
“It’s exciting for them. It’s a different experience than their classroom, to actually get the hands- on experience in the lab,” Guzman said.
Ag in Motion’s curriculum is designed to complement classroom work, and also to challenge students. Science teachers at each school select from a menu of about 10 possible experiments, then Guzman leads children through the lab using state-of-the-art audio- video equipment and a lot of hands-on help.
“The challenging classes that we offer give the students another opportunity to realize the potential career opportunities out there for them,” says Guzman, adding that the lab hits the California State Standards for student curriculum and is already prepared to meet or exceed the requirements of the upcoming next generation science standards. “It’s pretty special.”
According to Laverty, the day-to-day lab work is only the first step of a larger goal: to inspire kids to pursue careers in ag.
“Hopefully, they leave with a new understanding of the careers that are out there in agriculture,” Laverty said. “It’s not simply working in a field.
“We want to inspire kids to take more science and math in high school and to make that connection to ag careers. Pretty much any job you can have in agriculture from the production side is science based, and we want the kids to understand and make that connection. That is absolutely our long term goal.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE NATIONAL AG SCIENCE CENTER ON THE WEB AT AGSCIENCECENTER.ORG.