Northeast Takes Precision Ag to High Schools

Published on: April 24, 2019

NORFOLK, NE – Students in six area high schools are learning precision agriculture basics thanks to a three-year, $785,000 grant awarded to Northeast Community College by the National Science Foundation.

The grant is funding Lonny Mitchell’s position as the College’s precision agriculture trainer through June 2020, as well as a mobile Precision Agriculture Learning simulator equipped with multiple hands-on training modules.

The grant has allowed Mitchell, who has been in his position since October 2017, to write a five-lesson precision agriculture curriculum for high schools. Precision agriculture involves maximizing potential through resource-efficient practices with the use of technology.

Norfolk High School is among the six pilot schools this academic year. Its agricultural education instructor, Jonathan Anderson, said he was receptive to the precision agriculture curriculum idea after learning details in a letter from Mitchell.

The curriculum is “very applicable to the changing demands of agriculture today where computer and technology skills are needed,” Anderson said. “Students need to see other careers besides veterinarians and production agriculturists, and this (precision agriculture) program did it.”

The other pilot schools are Crofton, Elgin, Madison, O’Neill and Pierce, all in Northeast Community College’s 20-county service area.

Trevor Belina (right) of Farmers Pride discusses soil sampling basics with students in the Plant and Soil Science class at Norfolk High School during a field day. (Courtesy Northeast Community College)

Mitchell conducted two training sessions for the ag-education teachers in the pilot schools in summer 2018 after receiving their input, including tests and worksheets.

The content of the first three lessons is delivered by the ag-ed instructor. During the fourth lesson, Mitchell visits the school with the Precision Agriculture Learning simulator. The fifth lesson covers careers in precision agriculture.

The curriculum can be tailored by the instructor to the class.

During the fall semester, Anderson incorporated the new curriculum into his Plant and Soil Science class over a two-week span.

The activities for the juniors and seniors included a field trip to a Norfolk field where Trevor Belina and Bob Pollock with Farmers Pride demonstrated the use of probes in soil sampling and its role in fertilizer application.

An indoor activity featured an eight-square-foot homemade grid built with PVC pipes and ropes that represents a field with 64 “parcels.” Mitchell said it is used to teach such variables as soil, seed, nutrients, elevation and soil-holding properties in fields.

Anderson said one of his students commented “how precise technology can get with agriculture, like soil yields, and even in animal science.” He also taught students how to set up precision agriculture applications on their phones.

Also during the fall semester, the precision agriculture curriculum was taught to freshmen in an ag-ed class at Madison. Ag-ed instructors at the four other pilot schools are working the curriculum into their classes during the spring semester.

Mitchell said he plans to add approximately five new pilot high schools for the 2019-20 school year. A future goal, he said, is to work with the Nebraska Department of Education to implement the precision agriculture curriculum as a unit to introduction to agriculture classes in all high schools with ag-ed programs across the state.

In addition to high school students, Northeast’s three-year precision agriculture grant is funding the revamping of the precision agriculture program curriculum at the College into six modules that were implemented when classes began in mid-January. Two of modules are being offered by Northeast’s Center for Enterprise through trainings this winter to area residents employed or involved in ag-based businesses and industries.

Mitchell is also developing online courses where high school students can earn dual high school and college credits.

Mitchell said it’s been a bit challenging developing precision agriculture curriculum for high school and college students, as well as seminars, workshops and specialized training sessions — all from scratch.

“But it’s moving along well,” he said. “I have some great resources to spark ideas.”

And the Coleridge native said his diverse background, which includes computer technology and various roles with several seed companies, is proving a plus.