Connect Agriculture and STEM Through Coding

In our third grade STEM classes at Hamilton Community Schools we spend a lot of time investigating the science and technology of farming. Hamilton straddles Allegan and Ottawa Counties in Michigan, the two top ag producing counties in the state. All of our students are either involved in farming or know other families who are. In STEM we show them how being successful as farmers takes high levels of scientific knowledge, technical skills, and an increasing level of innovation. Even though we live right in the middle of the “farm belt”, every kid across America needs an understanding of how and where our food is produced. Whether you’re in Hamilton, Michigan or Brooklyn this unit can deepen understanding and open minds to all that is involved with feeding a nation.

Here is a progression of activities I do to build these skills with a heavy focus on engineering and computer science.

Open Their Eyes: Most of our kids have seen the big pieces of machinery out in the fields plowing and harvesting but only a few have actually had the chance to get up close. YouTube provides a bunch of great videos that take kids inside the machinery and highlight technical advances.

Farmers Reap the Benefit of Driverless Tractor Tech – CBS This Morning
John Deere: Improving Farm Efficiency with Technology
2016 John Deere Combine Features Video

These videos are great for showing kids what is already in use and can spark the innovative imagination as we move forward by asking them to design the farm equipment of the future.

For an overall look into the real lives of a variety of different types of farmers, nothing beats DiscoveringFarmland.com from the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Lesson plans, digital interactive games, and clips from the documentary Farmland highlight what is available.

Practice: The American Farm Bureau offers a great set of farming-based games and their Equipment Engineer game fits perfectly into this unit. Learners travel around the world and are given agricultural scenarios where they pick the best equipment for the job. Through the game, they are gaining knowledge of the way different pieces can be used as well as how farm equipment solves a wide range of challenges.

Get Designing: This is also a great spot to introduce the Design Process and for kids the PBS series “Design Squad” provides lots of resources like cool graphics and the “Kid Engineer” videos are super helpful, especially the Bike Trailer one.  

For creating designs we use Apple’s Keynote on our iPads. There is a lot that can be done with the app besides making slideshows. Kids use their imagination to start designing what could be possible in futuristic farm equipment. This is a great activity for detailing designs and the really great Keynote users even are able to animate their designs. Video of our students designing.

Students use Keynote on the iPad to design farm equipment.

Building for Function: It is one thing to dream up the future but it is a big task to actually build something functional, even if it is a model made of Legos. This can be a difficult hurdle for kids to clear because for most of them all of their use of Legos has been  purely imaginary. We spend time building vehicles with Legos that must be powered by a robotic Sphero. Here is where young engineers get really good at analyzing flaws and making tweaks as part of the design process. We start off building vehicles that can move straight ahead as just accomplishing that can be a task. Eventually students get to where the vehicles can actually maneuver around the playground.

Students engineer a Lego vehicle powered by a Sphero.

Bring in the Computational Thinking:  The great thing about Spheros is that their movement can be controlled down to a fraction of a second by the Tickle app. By using a block programming, kids sort and build out a list of commands for the Sphero to perform. When we first start with the Lego vehicles, we simply tell the device to go as fast as it can in one direction. We ramp the coding up greatly when we start to simulate jobs machinery would perform on the farm.

Students are given a small plot of ground on the playground (or in the gym depending on weather) and have to program the Sphero to “plow” or “harvest” the field. Below is some sample starter code that students might assemble for their Sphero.

Block coding in the Tickle app used to control robotic Spheros

Not only are there tremendous calculations our third graders are making like angles, velocity, and time, but there is a deeper benefit in the way they must think logically to make something real actually happen. They create loops of commands and must algebraically figure a number of variables.

Last year was my first year as a STEM teacher after having taught 16 years in a technology-only classroom. By far the greatest reward was seeing students grab a sense of power over their world when they were able to program an app to make something real happen. It is one thing to program something on a screen, but when they can send a robotic sphere all of the way to the office from their classroom, they become real “do-ers” full of confidence to tackle real tasks.

Putting it All Together: This unit starts with gaining understanding and then progresses to imagining and eventually building and controlling. It takes time and patience and not all kids will progress at the same rate and some may not even finish it…and that is okay. Those who progress really quickly can be given extra challenges. I am planning on giving my “high flyers” a kite, a 3D printing pen and a GoPro and ask them to create a tool a farmer could use to survey crops. We will spend six weeks (meeting once a week for an hour) on this project this year but no matter where individuals are on our last session, we will dedicate a major chunk of time to discussing how the innovation we simulated helps preserve resources and promotes sustainability.

Evaluations and Reflections: Our STEM classes focus heavily on the Next Gen Science Engineering Standards. We are constantly monitoring how individuals are progressing through:

Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

We also write, sketch, and reflect daily in STEM journals that students use from kindergarten through fourth grade. We talk about how STEM time is different than any other time at school. We are not just doing school, we are together designers, engineers, and scientists and journals and sketchbooks are tools these people use to do their jobs.

As we continue to develop our STEM classes we are discovering the power in tying STEM concepts like design and coding with real-life challenges rooted in our community. Someday we hope that our current students will not only graduate and do great things…but will do those great things right here in Hamilton.

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