In a science classroom in New York City, a group of high school seniors gathered around a table and analyzed nutrient cycling data from a farm in upstate New York. Together, they outlined a plan to support the farm’s nutrient management needs and maintain ecological stability. This was thanks to a curriculum developed under the leadership of Agustin Olivo, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University.
Olivo’s curriculum pertains to the Whole Farm Nutrient Mass Balance (NMB) program. NMB is run by the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP) headed by Olivo’s main academic advisor, Quirine Ketterings. It aids farmers with tracking nutrient use for the farm—comparing nutrients brought onto the farm with feed and fertilizer purchases to nutrients leaving the farm as milk, crops or manure. Over 100 farms participate in the NMB assessment each year. Now, it is also being shared with high school students to spark an interest in sustainable agriculture.
Olivo began working on the curriculum in the fall of 2020 as part of his doctoral dissertation, together with Jeffrey Perry, senior lecturer in Global Development; Olivia Godber, research associate with NMSP; Ketterings and several agricultural sciences undergraduate students. In late 2021, the researchers moved to pilot testing.
In the fall of 2022, Olivo introduced the curriculum to teachers, and it is now taught at more than 20 schools thanks to outreach by Perry and Cornell Cooperative Extension educators. “Our main goal was to expose students to topics related to environmental sustainability of agriculture and data management in farms,” said Olivo. “We also wanted them to gain an understanding of career opportunities in these areas.”
One school that has begun using the curriculum is the Health, Arts, Robotics and Technology (H.A.R.T.’s) High School, located in Queens, New York. Siridatar Khalsa, a tenth-grade biology teacher at H.A.R.T.’s, is heading the agriculture program. In her nineteenth year of teaching, she is excited to branch out into agriculture education. “There’s so much to explore in agriculture,” she said. “It’s not just domesticated plants and animals: we look at ecology, field science and natural resources, too.”
Khalsa introduced the NMB curriculum to the seniors in her agriculture class last year. As background for the curriculum, she covered a foundational understanding of sustainability and the ecological effects of using nutrients on a farm. As they dove into the curriculum, she also presented real farm data as part of NMB-focused case studies. Students analyzed these data and simulated presenting a report to farmers with suggestions for improvements in farm management.
“Using data analysis, we can connect real-world problems to what we’re learning in a real way.”
The curriculum is structured with four lessons and four lab sessions, which facilitate student learning, skill-building and understanding. The hands-on approach was designed to engage students in data collection and learning about their environmental assessments in agriculture. “Using data analysis, we can connect real-world problems to what we’re learning in a real way,” said Khalsa. “Students really got into the case studies and enjoyed working as a group to problem solve.”
Looking forward, Olivo is collecting data on student experiences and outcomes. He does this by having students complete a pre- and post-implementation survey. “We want to see if the curriculum is beneficial and if students are walking away with new skills, and other perspective on agriculture,” he said.
Khalsa reflected positively on her experience teaching the curriculum. “Seeing the farm data and applications allowed students to connect with the importance of environmental sustainability,” she said. She plans to teach the curriculum again this spring and hopes to introduce animal feeds and ration formulation to the content.
Tyler Collinson ’25 is an animal science major and student writer for the Cornell CALS Department of Animal Science.
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