LAS VEGAS, N.M. – The 1,400 students at Las Vegas City Schools have a unique opportunity to experience science up close and personal.
A different spin is put on STEM education through the school district’s one of a kind, district-wide youth agricultural science center program conducted by New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
NMSU agriculture and extension education students traveled to Las Vegas in October to teach the district’s second-graders two topics — eating colorful vegetables and composting.
The trip was an activity in Tom Dormody’s class that teaches future agricultural educators how to integrate STEM into their lessons. As part of the course, the students do field-based activities at public schools, including Las Vegas.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to teach the elementary school age,” said Jake Devine, NMSU senior from Hondo. “The kids get so excited about doing the project.”
Using the “Eat the Rainbow” curriculum, NMSU seniors Suzanne Hopkins from Truth or Consequence, Gabriel Doherty from Farmington and Marcus Magdalina from Jemez, encouraged the children to eat colorful vegetables. The activity included planting seeds to raise carrots, corn, radishes, spinach and beets.
Meanwhile, NMSU junior Justin Armstrong from Hagerman and seniors Madalynn Cole from Las Cruces, Rahime Jarvis from Rio Rancho and Devine, taught the students what can be used to make compost. The youth searched the science center garden for items to add to the compost.
“Participating in this field-based activity gives our students an opportunity to practice teaching,” Dormody said. “It also lets us pilot test some ideas for curriculum. We are testing a science comprehension model here at Las Vegas City Schools.”
Since 2006, the NMSU Extension and Research Youth Agricultural Science Center at Las Vegas’ Memorial Middle School has provided educational programs to students.
“From the data we collected from our middle school program, I knew we were intervening too late to truly impact the student’s STEM aptitude,” said Peter Skelton, NMSU professor and director of the Las Vegas program. “We needed to reach the students earlier.”
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The opportunity to expand the program came when the New Mexico Public Education Department directed Las Vegas City Schools to consolidate their schools due to a decrease in the district’s enrollment.
The school district eliminated two school sites as it moved the students into four schools at two sites.
“Memorial Middle School, where we had our greenhouse and gardens, was one of the schools that was closed,” Skelton said. “I proposed to the school district that we expand the youth agricultural science center program districtwide.”
Funding from the school district’s capital improvement funds and PNM’s grant program, “A New Century of Service,” has provided instructional greenhouses at the elementary school and middle school/high school sites.
The science center program fits well with NMSU’s priorities of fortifying the K-12 system to help students come better prepared to enter college.
Working with the classroom teachers, Skelton provides educational activities for the students in the science center.
“The curriculum builds from basic botany for the elementary school student to scientific experimentation for the middle school students,” Skelton said. “The goal is to connect agri-science programs at the elementary and middle school levels to applied, real-world agricultural production at the high school.”
This approach enhances student’s production-based agricultural competency and prepares them for post-secondary STEM education in agriculture or natural resource science.
Additionally, select programs developed and tested at the science center have been adapted to meet the needs of 4-H youth statewide. This includes science trunks that can be used by county Extension and 4-H agents, 4-H club leaders, or volunteers for STEM program delivery.
The elementary school greenhouse is up and running. The fifth- and sixth-grade students helped create the outdoor gardens by designing, building, and planting vegetables. They saw their work come to fruition with this fall’s harvest.
While the NMSU students were in Las Vegas, they built two keyhole gardens, which the second-grade students helped fill with composting materials.
The keyhole garden is a circular raised-bed garden with a wedge indent on one side. In the middle of the garden is a wire-grid column where compostable material is placed. The indented wedge in the garden wall allows a person to reach the compost column. Watering the compost creates a ‘compost tea’ that spreads to the plant roots.
“When you look at the garden from above, it looks like an old-fashion keyhole, thus the name,” said Blake Strogner, an NMSU graduate who researched the garden concept during a creative component for his graduate school studies. “It was promoted by the Catholic Relief Service for use in Africa where the semi-arid environment is similar to New Mexico.”
“When I learned about keyhole gardens, I knew I wanted to build them here at the science center as a demonstration of what people could do in their own yards to grow vegetables,” Skelton said.
A grant from Southwest Capital Bank provided the NMSU class travel and materials to construct the gardens.
Other demonstrations at the youth agricultural science center include a rainwater catchment system off the greenhouse roof, and, in the future, an aquaponics system where fish and plants are cultivated together in a recirculating ecosystem that utilizes natural nitrogen-fixing bacteria to convert fish/aquatic animal waste into plant nutrients.
Jane Moorman writes for New Mexico State University Marketing and Communications and can be reached at 505-249-0527, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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