Shelby County STEM

Brody Plambeck, Makayla McCool and Katelyn Plambeck meet Tim and Joan Sullivan's team of horses. The Sullivans are from the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in DeSmet, S.D.

HARLAN, Iowa — Yvonne Gaul has seen her students drift further away from their farm roots. A couple years ago, she decided to do something about it.

Gaul, who teaches kindergarten for Shelby County Catholic Schools in Harlan, helped develop the school’s first Ag Fest, designed to offer students a hands-on learning experience.

“We focused more on careers in agriculture in 2017,” she says. “We wanted kids to know that you didn’t have to farm to have a career in agriculture.”

Gaul, who farms with her husband Larry and son Chris, organized this year’s event with an emphasis on the foundation of agriculture.

“This year, we looked more at the past, present and future of agriculture,” she says. “We had over 100 years of history represented at the festival.”

A number of local vendors were on hand to help educate children ages pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. All types and ages of machinery were on hand for students to touch, climb on and learn from.

One of the more unique vendors came from the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in South Dakota. A team of horses was on hand to show students how fields used to be plowed.

“Each vendor had something the kids could actually touch, and I think that helps with learning,” Gaul says.

In addition to the school, the event had several other sponsors, including the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to Iowa’s STEM website, “The goal of increasing STEM interest and achievement is critical to regaining Iowa's historic legacy as a leader in education and workforce development.”

Deb Frazee serves as the southwest regional STEM manager for the advisory council, and works out of Southwestern Community College’s Red Oak office. She covers more than 50 school districts in 22 counties.

Frazee says events like the Ag Fest here are becoming more and more popular as schools and communities recognize STEM principles when it comes to education.

She says agriculture is comprised of three items that fit under the STEM umbrella — food, fuel and fiber.

“This program was developed in 2011, and each year agriculture becomes a stronger area,” she says.

Frazee encourages schools interested in a program to contact her. She says her region hosted 22 events last year, and while not all of those emphasized agriculture, it is an area that should become more and more popular.

“STEM’s mission is to grow our future workforce,” Frazee says. “Businesses are telling us it’s important to teach young people how to work together as a team, and we are doing things to make sure students are ready for the workforce.”

Gaul says her school will offer another festival in two years. She says it is gratifying to see the students and adults having fun as the event. This year’s event attracted over 300 visitors.

“There is so much for the students to do at this event, and I know they are learning about agriculture while having a good time,” Gaul says. “We want them to be in touch with the farm, and to know where their food comes from as they learn about it.”

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Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.