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  • Animal Science
  • Department of Global Development
  • Agriculture
High school agriculture educators Matthew Sweeney and Isaac Habermehl recently piloted a curriculum that covers the fundamentals of environmental sustainability in agriculture and teaches students how to conduct and interpret the whole farm nutrient mass balance (NMB).

Developed by the Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP), the curriculum, “Assessing Environmental Sustainability of Farming Through Whole Farm Nutrient Mass Balances,” is intended for ninth through 12th graders. Cornell Ph.D. student Agustin Olivo, who joined the NMSP in fall of 2020, took the lead in developing the curriculum. Olivo received additional mentorship from Jeff Perry, senior lecturer in instruction and education in Cornell CALS’ Department of Global Development.

Sweeney teaches at Royalton-Hartland School in Middleport, New York, and Habermehl at Pine Valley School in South Dayton, New York.

We sat down with Sweeney, Habermehl, Perry and Olivo to learn about the mission and vision of this exciting new NMB curriculum.

What are the goals of the NMB curriculum?

Olivo: It is important to engage youth in different aspects of agriculture and sustainability. Growing awareness about sustainability among new generations is very relevant to getting them interested in learning more about the complexity of agriculture and also to promoting the changes the agricultural industry needs in the short and long term.

One of our goals is to make the students aware of connections among various aspects of dairy farming – including crop and feed production, animal nutrition, and manure management – using a systemic, whole-farm approach. We wanted to develop a curriculum that helps students make connections and identify opportunities to improve on whole farm nutrient management.

Another goal was to introduce the value of data collection and analysis to improve management decisions at the farm level that impact environmental sustainability. Introducing to younger students the value of science-based and data-driven decision-making, associated with opportunities to train their critical thinking skills, is very important.

What motivated you to implement this new curriculum?

Sweeney: Kids today are increasingly interested in where their food is coming from; we see that in the decisions students make about what they’re buying and where it’s coming from. With this curriculum, we are looking at milk production.

The students are curious about the practices that are being employed, as well as how that dairy farm is helping and sustaining the environment.

I thought that it would be an excellent opportunity to incorporate this new curriculum into my advanced agri-science course. I had 14 college-bound, top-of-the-class type students that didn’t necessarily have the strongest agricultural background but were extremely interested in learning more about the field. I wanted them to be able to apply things that they’ve learned in the classroom and see how it works in the real world.

Habermehl: Most of my students either work on a dairy farm or their family owns a farm. The kids have the animal background, but the business and math side is lacking. I loved looking at the different scenarios with the data sets and comparisons between farms in each activity to see how the numbers can be applied in context.

How is the curriculum designed?

Olivo: The curriculum combines hands-on activities and discussions into four main lessons with four accompanying laboratory sessions. Throughout 11 40-minute sessions, students cover the fundamentals of the whole farm NMB concept and conduct a whole farm NMB, identifying opportunities for efficiency and sustainability improvement at the farm level.

Perry: The underlying NMB model is clearly presented in the curriculum and then demonstrated in two model farms. The math involved is connected to data found on farms. This is where production agriculture is moving, so it is great to have this project help students understand how data is used on the farm.

What did you like most about the curriculum?

Sweeney: It incorporates everything, and there is a level of rigor as well. One of my other goals is to make sure that I bridge the gap between high school and college.By implementing this curriculum, which I feel is taught at a collegiate level, it helps students see how it’s going to be at that next level, especially in the dairy science program.

Students enjoyed the curriculum, and what really helps drive it home is that this is real data. The students are able to take the information, analyze it, apply it and then make recommendations.

In today’s day and age, what really helps students is to know that what they’re doing matters and is applicable to the real world.

Do you see yourselves continuing to implement this curriculum in the future?

Sweeney: I have already started to plan my course for next year, and we will definitely be implementing the curriculum this fall.

Habermehl: I am scheduled to teach an ag business class next year and will be utilizing it. I will definitely be using some type of modification of this for a distance learning class next year as well.

 

Melanie Soberon is a freelance writer for the NMSP. This article originally appeared on the NMSP website.

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