Nothing about this school is normal.
On the walkways leading to the building, permeable pavers are installed to soak up rainwater instead of letting it run off. A computer opens and closes greenhouse windows depending on the temperature. Solar arrays on the roof warm the building’s water and provide electricity.
Yet a short distance up the hill, horses are whinnying. A rooster is crowing just outside a classroom. And students are dumping mounds of scrap paper into a heap to make compost.
Welcome to Kentucky agricultural education in 2012.
This high-tech, zero-energy campus is the Locust Trace AgriScience Farm, a new venture in Lexington-Fayette County public schools that teaches science and other skills through a mixture of classroom work and hands-on agricultural activities.
It’s the newest, most cutting-edge addition to agriculture education in Kentucky. But if anything, it represents where all of Kentucky’s agriculture-based educational efforts have been moving.
Kentucky agricultural education still prepares kids to work on a farm, but it’s doing it through programs that also prepare them for college.
And why not? Farming crops or livestock is, at its heart, is hands-on science.
Future Farmers of America, a high school-based program that teaches leadership through agricultural education, has seen a surge in interest in recent years. That will only continue, says Brandon Davis, program consultant for agricultural education in Kentucky and adviser to FFA.
“Most people, when they think of FFA, they think of a very farming-based concept,” Davis says. “Only 30 percent come from farming backgrounds. School districts tell us that what they like is the leadership development that it offers.”
Elizabeth McNulty, Kentucky’s administrator of education programs, oversees the state’s Mobile Sciences Activities Center, a sort of traveling agriscience lab. The mobile lab targets elementary school children, typically those in fourth grade.
She says the Commonwealth saw the opportunity with the lab, which was born in the late 1990s, to accomplish two goals: promote agriculture as a career and also offer teachers the hands-on activities required in science learning.
In the mobile lab, activities include making lip balm from soy beans and biodegradable plastic from corn. Students also germinate seeds and identify plants. The activities are geared toward reinforcing what students are learning in the classroom and are likely to face during statewide testing.
McNulty says interest in the lab, which schools can rent for $100 a day, is rising in rural and urban areas because of the public’s growing interest in health and food.
“We’re kind of focusing on the cool side of agriculture,” McNulty says. “And in the last few years, it’s been in the mainstream media more. Parents are savvier about food. We’ve really seen a big explosion. Everybody’s doing school gardens and we’re seeing a number of community agriculture programs as well.
“All of that has resulted in a lot more good feedback from children.”
Charlene Jacobs, director of the state’s 4H program, has seen a shift in the last decade when it comes to agriculture education, which is still a core part of 4-H’s life skills and science curriculum. Now, educators spend a lot more time focusing on where food comes from, and on the science behind the industry.
“Science and engineering is all part of agriculture,” Jacobs says. “So as we train them, maybe they’ll be interested in agricultural engineering. Or maybe they’ll be interested in science or engineering. It’s a success either way.”
On a recent tour of Locust Trace, there’s no mistaking that educators are marrying science with agriculture. The high-tech wizardry at the school makes it feel more like a college classroom than a high school.
The school has a veterinary clinic with video links to the rest of the school building so classes can tune in to witness interesting or educational procedures. Huge tanks in the greenhouse support koi and tilapia, whose waste feeds nearby plants. Chicken pens out on the campus are moved daily to give the birds new territory to graze on.
“What makes this place unique is just how many things our students are exposed to,” says Brian Miller, Locust Trace’s administrative dean, “everything from veterinary science to solar energy. There are lots of different things going on.”
On a recent tour, some students were working in the greenhouse and others were running tests in the horse barn. Still others were learning about the life and reproduction cycles of fish.
In one of the barns, a student was asked what he would be doing that week at school.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to artificially inseminate a cow,” he says, beaming, with no hint of acknowledgement that his high school experience might be a good bit different from others’.
Excitement about the school has caught the attention and support of local farmers, Miller says. Many are donating time and even some materials.
“We’ve got a tremendous agriculture community that cares deeply about what goes on at Locust Trace,” Miller says.
Todd Clark, a Fayette County farmer who has volunteered for the school, thinks that approach is refreshing.
“To me, the amazing thing about the school is the way it’s addressing agriculture as agriculture is today,” says Clark, who took high school agriculture classes in Fayette County in the 1980s. “They’re meeting the needs of the community we live in now.
“In the past, agriculture education was only addressing the next generation of farmers,” he says. Now, among other things, “it’s addressing the lack of connection from urban to rural in the food system. And maybe even more important, what it’s doing now is producing a group of people who understand agriculture, whether or not they’re going into it.”