Out of the classroom

Montgomery shifting approach with new class

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Montgomery shifting approach with new class

 

By SETH NOLAN

snolan@sungazette.com

A group of students at Montgomery Area High School are among the first to experience a new initiative in the district trying giving kids a hands-on educational experience outside of the realm of traditional education.

Chris Ulrich and Lee Robinson have paired up to teach tenth grade students the latest technology in agriculture and biology, but in a way that they can all have fun.

Many schools have been shifting focus and increasing education programs in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

But the class began at Montgomery when Principal Joseph Stoudt approached Ulrich in February about putting together a class that could use his experience in agriculture.

“He knew that I had my own farm operation and told me that I could choose whatever teacher I wanted to join in helping teach the class,” Ulrich said.

With Robinson’s background in biology, it was an easy choice, he said.

“I was excited for this different approach,” Robinson said. “Because it encourages more participation and gives those students practical application to develop skills that will lead to job opportunities.”

According to Ulrich, the agricultural industry is in an interesting trend that will create a crater in trained labor in the next few years.

“The agricultural industry is anything in agriculture and foods and most jobs require a two- to four-year degree,” he said. “There will be a need for around 55 thousand jobs and there will only be 36 thousand around to do those jobs in the state in the near future. With that disconnect coming, this type of education is important. Plus, just locally, you drive around the school district and the majority of the land is agricultural or forest land so we might as well acknowledge where these kids are coming from.”

The real difficulty in preparing the class began when both teachers started preparing the curriculum, they said.

“The biggest task was deciding what we wanted to include in the course,” Ulrich said. “The agricultural industry is much wider than people think it is.”

Both Robinson and Ulrich went the Pequea Valley School District, in Lancaster County, where they have a very successful STEM agricultural based program to see what they were doing.

“They do their BioAg STEM classes simultaneously with their biology class,” Robinson said. “We were really impressed with the things they were doing in their curriculum.”

But Montgomery offers the class as a standalone opportunity for sophomores instead of with another class, so the possibilities of where to start were broad, Ulrich said.

So far, the students have done an impressive amount of activities encompassing many different subjects from conservation to soil biology. “We started out by giving the kids seeds they had to germinate,” Robinson said. “They all came from different fields so some germinated better than others. They had to figure out why and how they could make theirs grow.”

The students also are in an ongoing challenge to see who can grow the largest radish where they have to experiment with the change in pH, light or the amount of water they use.

“The idea is for the students to test one variable at a time,” Robinson said.

The students are currently finishing up a unit where they’ve been looking at nutrients in a sample of soil they had to gather from their homes and studying the chemical, biological and physical properties of it.

“Throughout all the lessons, we expand the conversation and tie in things like economic impact of using different energy sources and water issues,” Robinson said. “It’s all about making it interdisciplinary.”

All of these new efforts to teach the students is increasing their enthusiasm and the level of participation, Robinson said.

“For the most part taking these kids away from the traditional classroom and giving them a different set of parameters is being received very well,” Ulrich said. “I’m getting great feedback from the kids and from other people who are talking to those kids.”

Both teachers are looking forward to the next phase of the class and getting the students out to do some interesting work around the county.

Soon, a member from the Lycoming County Conservation District is coming to lead a class in a stream study.

The students then will start raising trout inside of the classroom and release them into one of the black hole creeks on the district’s forestland, Ulrich said.

The students also have been working on a small plumbing activity by building manure digesters to create methane in a controlled environment.

“We want to take them to the county landfill to look at what they have been doing to capture natural gas and put it back out into the power grid,” Robinson said.

One of the most anticipated projects will require the students to use a drone to view farmland from the skies.

“I look forward to period five everyday and before you even know it the bell rings,” Ulrich said.

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