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The Power of Innovation in Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources

Author: Anna Herman


The U School

Year: 2022

Seminar: Soft Robots

Grade Level: 9-12

Keywords: agriculture history, agriculture technology, farming, farming technology, food production, food technology, innovation, iteration, urban agriculture

School Subject(s): Agriculture

The Power of Innovation will introduce students to the history of technology and innovation in agriculture, food and natural resources and then look to the future of innovation, and the process by which problems are identified, and solutions attempted through an iterative process.   Through the lens of innovation students will be exposed, and deepen their experiences and knowledge of,  many very practical aspects of farming and food production.  Students will complete hands-on labs, and complete independent research on problems solved over time with technology, and explore problems still left to solve and some of the innovators and their processes who are working on these problems. Students will also consider the unintended consequences of many of the innovations in farming and food production for the environment that humans are untangling as we deal with the climate changing consequences of many of these innovations.

Download Unit: Herman-Anna.pdf

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Full Unit Text
Unit Content

I teach a unique Career and Technical Education (CTE) program in Urban Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (AFNR) at the U School.   The U School was founded to offer a competency-based model that requires young people to demonstrate their learning through tangible performance tasks and to offer opportunities for independent and self-directed learning.   With this process, the goal is to empower young people through challenging and scaffolded learning experiences, and for students to be supported to create portfolio based assessments.   CTE programs generally aim to provide students with opportunities to learn and practice specific skills and tasks, which can be thought of as competencies, and is generally not broken up into curriculum units, but rather into skill exposure, practice and application opportunities.   I am always seeking ways to combine the CTE list of competencies into comprehensive units that allow students to contextualize their learning, and connect the competencies, skills and tasks to practical real-world learning, citizen science, community partnerships and service learning experiences.

This program I teach is the only CTE program offered at the U School, and is designed as a one-year intensive opportunity for high school seniors to learn, gain certifications, practice skills and gain exposure to green collar career pathways.    So, while our AFNR program is the only CTE program at The U School, the idea of competency based skills organized into classroom learning is a good fit.   This unit attempts to use the U School unit and lesson plan design tools to marry required CTE competencies, Sustainability Competencies and Habit of Success Competencies together in a form that offers students meaningful engagement in material that connects to real world issues in incremental ways.  My hope is students will enngage with useful content, and also through the active participation in scaffolded experiences will gain confidence in their abilities to evaluate and address real problems.

Our AFNR program curriculum is evolving and still new, and covers a wide range of topics such as sustainable food and agriculture production & processing and distribution, environmental monitoring, and climate change.   I plan to use this new unit to introduce students to the history of technology and innovation in agriculture, food and natural resources.  Then to look to the future of innovation, and the process by which problems are identified, and solutions attempted through an iterative process.   This unit can help me cover a wide range of seemingly disparate required  competencies from introducing specific emerging technologies to wrestling with the big idea of environmental impacts, while also exposing students will little experience or knowledge about agriculture to the basic practices of sowing, weeding, harvesting, processing and distributing food which is at the heart of our food and agriculture economy, and our AFNR class.  I view this unit at one which can both introduce students to key vocabulary and fundamental facts that are needed as prior knowledge for many of the remaining course units – but also as a gateway into the exciting and somewhat alarming aspects of futuristic innovations (eating bugs; meat from laboratories, robots taking over the most tedious and hard parts of our job if not the whole world  etc.) which will spark interest in some students, who might not see themselves as urban farmers or foresters, but might see themselves as food innovators and environmental strategists.

Through the lens of innovation students will be exposed, and deepen their experiences and knowledge of,  many very practical aspects of farming and food production.  Students will complete hands-on labs, and complete independent research on problems solved over time with technology, and explore problems still left to solve and some of the innovators and their processes who are working on these problems. Students will also consider the unintended consequences of many of the innovations in farming and food production for the environment that humans are untangling as we deal with the climate changing consequences of many of these innovations.  The ideas considered in environmental impact reviews will end up as a through line throughout the course as enviornmental impact is the fundamental issue when considering sustainability in all areas of agriculture, food and natural resources.

Students will be introduced to design thinking, and a big picture view of the value of iteration in the service of solving a food, agriculture or natural resources “problem.”  Having students understand that big ideas grow into final form through a series of steps will serve them in all aspects of their learning.  The idea of creating a draft, reviewing and then revising is an essential transferable skill-and one I want to emphasize early and often. Another key facet for any unit I offer in a CTE program is explicit exposure and links to career pathways and job prospects.

Technological innovations in food and agriculture may have started when someone took a stick, stuck a hole in the ground, and planted a seed.  Then, they likely sharpened the stick.  From oxen drawn plows of yesteryear to the “smart” combines using IoT (internet of things) to sort, weigh, measure and even process crops with sensors, robotic technology and wireless connectivity – technology born of innovation has inserted itself into our food and food growing systems and our ability to monitor,  measure and impact the environment.

In this TIP Seminar I have had the chance to explore how soft robots and technology in general can be integrated into the many overlapping and interrelated fields of study within the Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.   We have learned about labs that are working to engineer biodegradable building materials,  to use agricultural waste to fabricate biomaterials, and to create robots with pliable parts that can pick fruit and help automate food handling.

We were invited (virutally and in person) into engineering laboratories to witness how teams consider a problem, review materials, create protypes, plan and measure, review and refine.  This window into the inner workings of our instructor and guest lecturer’s thought processes, team building and laboratory set up inspired me to help my students understand the step-by-step iterative process that underlies most innovations.   This dedication and vision to take an idea, raise funding, assemble a team, try an idea, collaborate with colleagues who are sometimes competitors for funding and opportunities, is something that I had neglected to appreciate, and I am sure is something that my students have little insight into.  Making this iterative aspect of work of innovation explicit became an important goal for me in planning this unit.

Each guest lecturer was generous with their time and their ideas, and clearly desired to share their passion, ideas and vision to us fellows.   I was entranced by the Dumolabs work using biologic materials to engineer structures.  It seemed like a short stretch to imagine valuable uses for agricultural waste and byproducts in creating a sustainable future where even buildings biodegrade.  I was surprised to learn that there is a lab at U Penn collaborating on agriculture technology innovations, whose participants seems interested and available to collaborate with the urban agriculture community my students and I are a growing part of.  Our instructor Cynthia Sung’s Lab’s work inspired by origami and the power and posssibilitea of folding to create compliant materials, and her ability to explain complicated engineering concepts inspired me to attempt to both share and expect understanding of more technological details and underlying principles than I would have thought possible.   It was humbling to attempt to assemble and troubleshoot a simple arduino microcontroller, and this experience – while frustrating – was an important reminder of how our students often experience challenges.

As a culmination to our TIP fellowship, Sung invited us to attend ICRA, the International Conference on Robotics and Automation.  This international conference happened to be in Philadelphia on the date scheduled for the last day of our seminar.  I was able to directly meet innovators and see first hand some of the technology that is being marketed to agriculture, supply chain and food service uses – as well as innovations to support sustainable natural resources such as robots that clean and sort plastic in waterways, and provide the latest environmental monitoring.  I was able to take photographs to use in presentations for this unit, gather resources and contacts to share with my students.

I already have had some experience using technology for environmental monitoring,  and (with help from other teachers) have built simple systems to monitor some indoor agriculture systems in my classroom.   It could be useful for us to have the ability to remotely monitor and control indoor agriculture systems, and apply technology in a useful way to the growing spaces and food labs at in our urban agriculture classroom.   I have also used mycelia (the network of fungal threads which mushrooms are the fruiting body) to digest agricultural byproducts and create bio-building materials.   These existing and emerging technologies are both practical and potentially inspirational, and so I want them to have a firm grounding in our curriculum, and in our classroom infrastructure and funding priorites.

Teaching Strategies

There are always students who would be drawn into the world of sustainability, food systems and agriculture with technology, computers, robotics and sensors while others who might be interested in aspects of that are less technological, but are nonetheless innovative – such as building with biological materials like mycelia, and using microbes to digest and transform plastic waste.

The course is organized around our AFNR program schedule,  in which the same 20-22 students are rostered together with me for 3-5 hours each day.   This means we are often working simultaneously on more than one unit and finding interconnections between material.  This unit will span 2-3 weeks and overlap with the tail end of AFNR unit called The Power of Connections Ecology  & Communites.  This unit leaves students ready to consider the role of food and the impact of agriculture on the history of civilization, and the impact of humans on the world.

This new unit will include a combination of self-paced hands-on labs,  group field trips, direct instruction, independent research, and optional time spent in a pop-up classroom ag innovation maker-space over the rest of the quarter (4-6 additional weeks).   This unit will overlap on the other side with a unit called  The Power of Best Practices – procedures to ensure health, food safety & sanitation; storage; IPM.   There are many aspects of innovation that were designed specifically to address these best practice issues, and students may align a portfolio project to address one of the issues we uncover in this next unit using the theme of innovation and iteration.

See PDF for photos.

Classroom Activities

The Power of Innovation unit will start with a hands-on lab which will be set up as multiple stations around the classroom at which small groups of students will be tasked to do the work by hand, or with very simple hand tools, that has in many cases been made easier with mechanical innovations. Students will thresh, winnow & grind grain; comb cotton & spin thread with a drop spindle;  churn cream into butter with a hand crank..   This lab will help students experience directly some of the key practices that were made easier by tools, machinery and inventors.  Students will then watch videos of hand milking, and learn about the robotic milking machine that many consider better for cows – but at what cost?  Students will review research that has attempted to evaluate the energy and cost efficiences.  In another lab day, students will plan and set up an efficient system to plant seeds, water seedlings, and care for these plants indoors for several weeks.  We will introduce a simple sensor to assist with watering. They will then contrast their experience to the video and information about a product called the FarmBot which does the same thing for $2500.   Students will see demonstration of locally sourced oyster mushroom myclia and hemp by-products used to craft bio-bricks and/or bio-based packaging material (styrofoam substitute), and compare the embedded energy and structural uses for each .   Students will explore how drones are now used in agriculture, and make some assessments of how what is learned from a fly over is an improvement from “walking the fields.”   Training to certify to use our classroom drone camera will be a highlight of this unit for several students.

Students will watch several interactive slide presentations – using a tool called NearPod – an innovative add-on to google slides where a teacher can include videos, virtual reality tours, quizzes, polls and collaborative boards.  This tool allows a student who is absent from a day with key direct instruction occurring to keep up or catch up with their peers.  These direct instruction presentations and discussions will focus on AFNR innovations that exist, are in the  pipeline or on the drawing board such as soft-robotic crop pickers; micro-controllers to monitor and automate crop growing and animal care;  sensors to monitor water and air quality; bio-building with mycelia & various proteins; nano-drones for target pesticide application, and computerized soil sensors.   Students will then select one of these agriculture innovations and research the problem it is solving, what is this innovation replacing?  where it is being studied/used/tested/piloted?   Who is working on this?  They will complete a guided notes document to demonstrate.

There are four key goals of this unit. First: to consider why and how agriculture technology has impacted humans relationship with the world.  Second for a student to be able to explain how improvments to systems such as food growing, processing & distribution happen through iterative processes, teamwork, collaboration and invention.  Third, sudents will be able to explain how environmental impacts are considered, assessed and evaluated.  Lastly,  students will have explored jobs and opportunities that these innovative technologies offer.

The unit will culminate with hands on project to illustrate the iterative process. Students will be asked to design and craft a pot- then to use, review, and revise their design based on criteria they help create.  This simple iterative task is conceived to allow all students to succeed- while demonstrating the step by step nature of design. And they will have a pot to grow plants for an upcoming lab. Students may also opt to join a team that identifies and attempts to solve a problem or support the functioning of an indoor and outdoor agriculture or food production activity using some of the tools we have learned about.   A subset of students will participate in this pop up maker space project which has a budget to purchase supplies for projects that complete a short proposal review process.

Below is a detailed guide, which attempts to marry the CTE competencies and the U School unit design process.  I have also included a lesson plan, and several review tools that guide students to complete their required portfolio requirements.  The unit guide includes links to many of the resources that a student would use for learning and how they demonstrate what they need to show to earn their competency credit.   This unit offers something for teachers in other subjects besides Agriculture CTE.  Subsets of this unit would make stand alone lessons in an world history (History of Agriculture & The Impact on Civilization), environmental or general science or math class (Environmental Impact Reviews can be quantified and evaluated in detail).  Any teacher who wishes to offer their students a chance to connect agriculture, food and natural resources to their daily lives while considering environmental impact and unintended consequences of even the most brilliant innovations can find something here.



For Students & Teachers:

Background Information about Food, Agriculture/History

Can we Feed a Growing Population – Best Practices Activity

Agriculture Innovation Resources:

Homemade Agricultural Inventions | Agriculture Technology – CropForLife

75 technological innovations for our future farming toolbox

American Farm Machinery and Technology Changes from 1776–1990

The evolution of agricultural technology – Innovation News Network

Impact of Technology on Agriculture | National Geographic Society

Impact of Food/Ag on the Enviornment:

Opinion | Indoor Farming Is a ‘No-Brainer.’ Except for the Carbon Footprint. – The New York Times

Impact of Sustainable Agriculture and Farming Practices

Carbon Footprint of Food | Green Eatz

Suppliers of Kits & Components of Ag Tech:

Seeed Studio:

Arduino OPLÀ IoT Starter Kit – KIT-17694 – SparkFun Electronics

Innovative Engineering Laboratories  in the Philadelphia Area (and beyone).

Visit as a virtual field trip:

Sung Robotics Lab

DumoLab Research | Weitzman School

IoT4 Ag – Lab at U Penn

Okada Design

Innovative Engineering Technologies:  more info

Agriculture Technologies:

Do milking robots pay?

Food Technology Disruptions – 1st Edition

Dairy Robotic Milking Systems – What are the Economics? – DAIReXNET

Agriculture Technology

Food Innovation/Technology Career Exploration

AgExplorer – FFA tool to explore a range of agriculture careers

Horticulture Careers – Seed Your Future – on-line tool to explore horticulture careers, including some in innovative technologies

Resources for Teachers:

Links to the The Power of Innovation teaching/learning documents shared above:

The Power of Innovation in Agriculture Unit Plan – complete unit plan with links to multiple resources

Lesson Plan: Power of Innovation/Milking

Assignment Guide The Power of Innovation:  Iterate a Clay Pot (Student Facing)

Guided Notes/Assignment Guide

Educators for Sustainability Standards – Cloud Institutue…