IAITC teacher of the year brings real-world lessons to national classroom

Katie Buckley, seen upper right, Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom’s teacher of the year, leads a virtual workshop Thursday on integrating STEM (science, technology engineering and math) into classroom lessons during National Agriculture in the Classroom’s virtual conference. Buckley shared images of her students’ aquaponics experiments with teachers from across the country. (Photo by Kay Shipman)

Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom’s (IAITC) Teacher of the Year brought educators from as far as Puerto Rico into her McLean County classroom this week by sharing how to get students excited about agricultural science.

Katie Buckley, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educator in LeRoy Junior High and High Schools, offered lessons and ideas along with creativity and low-cost resources to educators in the National Agriculture in the Classroom’s virtual conference.

While Buckley’s lessons aren’t strictly about agriculture, those concepts apply to the farms surrounding her rural community.

“Find things kids are interested in. Ask them for a problem,” Buckley said, adding, “Drones tend to be high, high interest.”

Her high school and junior high school students work with drones, although the younger students focus on smaller, less complex drones that they operate in a gym. Buckley and her students discuss agricultural drone applications, including spraying, surveying and plant health scouting. Students also explore real-world issues of drone regulations.

However, Buckley doesn’t spoon-feed information to her students. With drones and other subjects, the teacher encourages her students to research, find solutions and take responsibility for the outcomes.

For example, Buckley advised her high school class that weather conditions 40 to 50 feet above the ground may be very different from what they were seeing and cautioned them against flying a drone. The students remained confident.

“The wind caught the drone and put it into a tree,” she told fellow educators. The wayward drone pilots then had to retrieve the drone and learned a valuable lesson.

Another of Buckley’s inventive lessons elicited an online response from a Louisiana educator who sent soil samples to central Illinois students.

To study soil health and productivity as part of a broader lesson on food insecurity and the need to increase production, Buckley’s students decided to seek soil samples from across the United States. Again, they had to research potential regulations and learned permits were required to import soil from Hawaii, one of the locales students selected.

The ingenious soil sampling device Buckley and her students created would gladden the heart of any thrifty teacher. Using a length of clear PVC pipe, the class added two short PVC pieces and a T joint, to create a combination soil probe/sampler. Two corks were included to seal both ends of the clear PVC that contained a soil sample, which was mailed back to the LeRoy students.

“We can look at the soil (core) as it came out of the ground,” Buckley added. Students will also sift the particles and examine the contents.

While the probe/sampler materials were inexpensive and available from any hardware store, Buckley warned cork is expensive. However, friends at a local restaurant donated corks to her class. Postage and return postage of $250 became the biggest expense.

Each major issue that Buckley’s students discussed from environmental impacts of plastic to runoff problems led to hands-on science experiments and lessons. Students observed mealworms munch on foam cups and made bioplastic utensils in a microwave. They made clay typography and learned how water drains, which tied into soil health lessons and erosion.

“I engage students to research and understand,” the award-winning teacher said. “They realize we’re doing it (learning) to make it better.”

Follow Buckley’s STEM class @LeRoySTEM on Twitter.