Why do our apples need to look perfect in the grocery stores? How is our Swiss milk produced and where? Why is soil quality important for our agriculture and what is soil quality, how can I measure it?? These are biological questions in an agricultural context but moreover, young pupils ask these questions when they are requested to think of “Agriculture in their life”. For children and adolescents, going to school and learning for life, understanding the world they are living in is more important than ever before. Pupils now and then want to know “why” things are what they are, where they come from and why they look like they do and more importantly, they want to explore the answers. Most of their time pupils have to be concentrated, sitting in their class rooms and learn the basic principles of mathematics, biology, geography or languages. It is well known that working in groups and practical exercises are very motivating for pupils of all grades. Moreover, from my own experience with pupils from the elementary school as well as talking to teachers, young people are interested in their environment. When they get the chance to see and elaborate how their environment functions they are more willing to work for it. “LERNfeld” is an opportunity to see, tell and experience the agriculture of their own country, talk to farmers who create and produce their everyday food and learn what makes the difference between organic and conventional food production, for the food, for the farmer and for themselves as consumers.
LERNfeld is a Swiss project by the international education program GLOBE in the field of earth system sciences. GLOBE connects pupils and teachers of the same country and all around the world giving access to projects aiming at learning how to question, examine and analyse aspects of our environment including weather, soil quality, light pollution, hydrology, biology and microorganisms, alien plants, seasonal changes and agriculture.
How did I get involved?
LERNfeld is open to master and PhD students, mainly communicated at the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich, given the specification of topics by GLOBE. The invitation to join the project arrived in my mailbox forwarded by my professor. I really like to talk and inform about the subject of my PhD and research but I am not a teacher! I am not educated in keeping pupils focused or know strategies how to keep pupils working concentrated. Luckily, that was not the point. My task would be to show pupils of different age what "research" is, how it works and what it means to examine a hypothetical question. LERNfeld asks young scientists to describe and show their everyday work, from what and how we learned at university to what we do today, in the lab and on the field. There are two specialities about the project itself: (l) LERNfeld brings together three parties to discuss agricultural topics; farmers, schools and science and (ll) pupils actually participate in data collection, e.g. using weather stations, for national service (read more here).
Therefore, I was very enthusiastic about the idea to give pupils an understanding of the sometimes abstract world of science which has something to do with people in white coats, taking samples and analysing them somehow in a laboratory. This perception is not surprising as science is quite under-represented in the media.
In an introductory course, we got to know the LERNfeld promotors from Globe and two universities. They told us about the aims of the project and how we would organise our part with the teacher and we chose from a variety of “learning activities (LA)” which we wanted to do. “Learning activities” are experiments of different degrees of complexity, all made to be performed on farms, focusing on soil, microorganisms, plants or animals. I liked the atmosphere at this meeting; we had time to discuss all our questions. Normally, each student can accompany two classes. In the end, I attended three classes in Zurich (Eastern Switzerland) and Baselland (North-western Switzerland), two from elementary school and one from secondary school, and I did two learning activities; “Natural resource humus: valuable fertiliser and carbon storage” and “Patterns of damage on fruit trees: recognise and understand them”. The latter was organised as a project day for “Sek 1”.
The typical procedure at LERNfeld is to get in contact with a teacher (one student is chosen to act as group supervisor and helps coordinating the other students with the requests by teachers) and discuss about time management and how much effort is needed from us students to accomplish the learning activity in class. My experience was, the more time the teacher spends with you to organise and talk through the learning units the better is the experience with the class. We, the students, are thought to help to introduce the topic of the learning activity in one hour in class, either on our own or together with the teacher, after that accompany class and teacher to the farm where pupils do their experiments and where we help them with questions. The most important part after that is to help the pupils analysing and interpreting the results of their experiments and then discuss all results together with the class and with the farmer so that they can recapitulate all aspects from the different points of view: the farmer’s perspective, the scientific perspective and the consumer’s perspective. The speciality of our part is to help pupils to frame hypotheses, link the scientific question with material and methods to gain results and interpret these results to understand the investigated aspects in different contexts. Pupils will discuss multiple aspects: like the (organic) production on a farm, how consumers need and deal with different agricultural products and how investigations help to guarantee quality and how to optimise methods to improve the handling with natural resources. In contact with the farmer, pupils are dealing with the questions: where does our food come from, e.g. what does a farmer have to do and invest to produce an apple, an egg or milk. They can ask the farmer about his daily work and life and why he is doing what he is doing and I experienced that pupils intensively addressed this part.
Pupils were very interested in my work as a scientist too and especially asked many questions about my work with cows and the procedures of my experiments. They asked me what happens to the animals during an experiment, why we feed different forages or supplements and how our work helps or if it creates better products. That was fun and I was almost proud when one teacher (from elementary school) told me that pupils that are normally more silent or less concentrated did very well during the project. Further, most pupils were able to stay concentrated for more than two hours on a subject. The repeated feedback from teachers was that they were more than satisfied with the effort their pupils made to do the project and they want to participate in the LERNfeld project again next year.
For me it was a valuable experience which took in the beginning quite a lot of work (I invested almost double the time we were asked to) but was fun and also gaining knowledge about aspects of agriculture I am not used to. I can fully recommend this project if someone is interested in education or working on transparency between agriculture and consumers, which starts with the children.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina Wolf is a dipl. biologist working on animal nutrition, especially on essential fatty acids for animals and in animal food products. Beside her focus on science, she is working on the transfer of knowledge from university to the outside world, pupils, teachers, interested people or even industry. She wants to bring together people; question and experience, need and improvement; to share, “to join the dots” and conceptualise new ideas.