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Culture of the Land workshop connects school teachers to local grain research

May 2nd, 2014 | Category: Community

by Cathy McKenzie

Educators and students from six area school districts – from Nooksack Valley to Mukilteo – got a hands-on lesson in grain research as part of the Culture of the Land workshop held April 19 at WSU Mount Vernon.

The workshop was designed to help K-12 teachers in northwest Washington connect with researchers, local farmers and bakers in linking the study of bread to their science and math curriculums.  Based on the attendance – including teachers, a school board member, students, a parent and a chef – the workshop was a success.

Senior Scientific Assistant Steve Lyon (right) describes the field research plots, including soft white winter wheat planted and studied by WSU Mount Vernon scientists. Photo courtesy of Meagan Dawson

Senior Scientific Assistant Steve Lyon (right) describes the field research plots, including soft white winter wheat planted and studied by WSU Mount Vernon scientists. Photo courtesy of Meagan Dawson

“Teachers found the speakers and workshops to be informative and very applicable to their classrooms,” said event organizer Meagan Dawson, Special Programs Coordinator for the Burlington-Edison School District. “They liked how all of the breakout sessions revolved around one theme: grains. The high-school science teachers were especially grateful for the connections to real science, agriculture, research, and field work.”

Connections have already sprouted between the youngest students and the Research Center, according to Senior Scientific Assistant Steve Lyon, a workshop presenter who leads the field research portion of the WSU Mount Vernon plant breeding program.

“I’ve already had one request for wheat seed from Mukilteo kindergarten teacher Amy Albano,” Lyon said. “She wants to incorporate wheat into her touch-taste unit for the 39 students in her two classes, so her ‘mini-scientists’ can count the seeds, plant them, and watch them grow.”

Learning about the life cycle of a plant through the eyes of the grain researchers has given teachers new ideas to incorporate math and science into a hands-on learning experience for their students, Dawson said of the Culture of the Land workshop.

“Our district is consistently building connections between our local businesses, non-profits, and research centers,” she said. “We wanted teachers to be able to work in small groups with other K-12 teachers from other districts. The event allowed teachers to be engaged in hands-on activities that connected physics, chemistry, biology, botany, and math.”

One highlight of the workshop was visiting The Bread Lab, where WSU Mount Vernon resident baker Jonathan McDowell conducts trials of local grain varieties in non-conventional ways, varying hydration, temperature, and time to assist local bakers in finding desired dough qualities.

“The instruments and measurements on one (objective) side of the lab and the baking, tasting, observation on the other (subjective) side is a great design that shows us how we learn and how we access what we learn,” Dawson said. “The researchers at WSU Mount Vernon have brought together very talented people to take a close look at our relationship between farmland and food. I hope this event inspires teachers to continue their Culture of the Land learning in their own classrooms.”

That is likely, considering there are plans to hold the workshop again next year.

“Teachers are seeing many connections across the curriculum that they would like to integrate into their classrooms, such as the history of grains in the Skagit Valley, crossbreeding research, how to use the scientific method while baking bread, connecting to local farmers, and sustainability,” said Dawson.

“One of the things I hear when I bring students, teachers and parents to the Research Center is that, before they visited, they didn’t know what kind of work was going on inside,” she added. “Now that they know, they can discuss their learning with other teachers in their districts and invite them to our event next year.”

The workshop also opened a few eyes regarding the role of research scientists within the community.

“Some people may have a stereotype that scientists have a difficult time explaining their research or that they are locked up in labs all day,” Dawson said. “This event helped all of the participants see that the WSU Mount Vernon Research Center really is committed to partnering with the community to improve our farming practices.

“The presenters were open to our questions, engaged in rich conversations, encouraged us to take home seeds, asked us to bring back our data on any grains we grew, and reminded us to bring groups of students through for a tour,” she said. “I worked in Skagit Valley for eight years before I knew the WSU Research Center existed. I want more people to know that we have this incredible resource right here.”

Participating schools and districts included: Olympic View, Voyager Middle School, Olivia Park Elementary, Explorer Middle School, Mariner High School, and Columbia Elementary, all from Mukilteo); Geneva Elementary (Bellingham); Nooksack Valley High School (Nooksack Valley); Burlington-Edison High School and West View Elementary (Burlington).

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