Planting The Seeds

FROM THE MARCH ISSUE: Agricultural organizations in Kansas and Ohio have programs aimed at ethanol education, training teachers and even providing funding to ensure the knowledge is passed on to students.
By Matt Thompson | February 20, 2019

For at least one student in James Burk’s engineering class at Trego County Community High School in WaKeeney, Kansas, ethanol is a passion. “I have them test different factors and kind of design their own recipe for how they would best produce a fermentation for ethanol …. We haven’t got to it yet this year, that part of it. We’re working on some wind energy stuff, and he keeps chomping at the bit wanting to get back to ethanol.” Burk says the student is so excited about ethanol, this is the second year he’s voluntarily enrolled in the engineering class.

Burk, a science teacher, is able to use those ethanol production labs in his classes thanks, in part, to an education effort undertaken by Kansas Corn, a state corn advocacy group made up of the Kansas Corn Growers Association and the Kansas Corn Commission.

The focus is on training Kansas’ K-12 teachers to use ethanol, corn and biotechnology curriculum in the classroom, says Sharon Thielen, director of education for Kansas Corn. “Our goal is to provide lessons and materials so that Kansas teachers can start teaching about these topics as early as kindergarten and then get more advanced into those topics as they get closer to graduating high school.” Through the program, Kansas Corn hosts summer workshops for the state’s teachers, and trains them on specific labs relating to corn and ethanol.

Those efforts grew out of a request from the KCC, which is made up of Kansas farmers, and determines how to use the organization’s checkoff funds. “About five years ago, they started having strategic planning meetings about where they were going to spend some of those commission dollars,” Thielen says. “They decided that they wanted to get more into the K-12 classroom and start making those linkages with science and agriculture, but specifically looking at biotechnology and ethanol, because we wanted our youth and our teachers to understand the importance of those two areas to our industry.”

Burk is one of Kansas Corn’s lead teachers who writes some of the program’s labs and helps train other teachers during the workshops. He says the program is successful in helping students understand where and how the commodities grown in their backyards are used. “There’s a ton of science that’s there. That’s just a really cool way to make it all relevant for students and tying it in with what’s going on and what’s important in their environment and economy,” Burk says.

Ohio Corn & Wheat’s education program, Feed the World, is also funded through the state’s checkoff program. Unlike Kansas’ program, Ohio focuses on middle school teachers, says Brad Reynolds, director of communications for Ohio Corn & Wheat. “One way that they really wanted to get in with the education part of it was ... reaching middle school science teachers who are more and more removed from the farms themselves,” Reynolds says. Like Kansas’ program, Feed the World provides curriculum, supplies and training for teachers on topics related to corn and ethanol.

Ethanol Awareness
In Kansas, ethanol producers are happy with Kansas Corn’s education efforts. “The Renew Kansas board, which makes up basically all the CEOs of the ethanol plants in the state, are beyond supportive and very happy with how we’re doing,” Thielen says. “So just their continual support is evidence, too, that we must be doing a good job.”

Derek Peine, CEO of Western Plains Energy and a member of the Renew Kansas board, says the success of the program is evident when he meets teachers at events and gatherings. “From my perspective, just random interactions with people have shown me that it is working and that there are teachers out there that are enjoying it and liking it,” he says.

The benefits of the program, he adds, are providing teachers with supplies for educating students about ethanol, but also growing awareness about the fuel. “From my standpoint, I think it’s one of the best things we have going in the state as far as public awareness and education about ethanol,” he says. “It’s actually, I think, just a huge success for the state of Kansas.”

On a national level, Kansas Corn was recognized by Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education for partnering with Renew Kansas to provide teachers the supplies needed to use labs focused on emissions, energy in feed, renewable fuel and energy output in their classrooms. The effort to fund the supplies for CASE’s labs led to Kansas Corn partnering with CASE to train all the state’s ag teachers. “The national CASE office has recognized the contribution that we’re making, and now they’re allowing Kansas Corn, in partnership with them, to train all ag teachers in our state in that ethanol lab,” Thielen says. “They’ll at least be able to get trained in that one lab so that they can get the financial support for those supplies.”

Beyond the Classroom
Thielen and Reynolds say their programs are exceedingly popular among teachers. “The teachers, they love it,” Thielen says. “They think our workshops are some of the best out there.” In 2018, Kansas Corn either trained or provided supplies to 725 teachers during the school year, who, in turn, taught about 20,500 students. And, Thielen says, most of the budget for those programs—87 percent—went directly to Kansas teachers. “Basically, corn producers should feel really good that their dollars are going right back into education,” she says.

“The ability to create curriculum and get that in front of students to learn about corn, and everything from corn dissections to making ethanol in a bag has really [had] great benefits for Ohio,” Reynolds says. According to Ohio Corn and Wheat, in 2018 the Feed the World program trained 82 teachers, and has trained a total of 320 since 2013. In addition, the lessons on ethanol are the most highly rated by the attending teachers.

While there are differences between the programs, both offer supplies to teachers who attend the workshops, a benefit that does not go unnoticed by teachers and stakeholders in both states. “When they go through this program … [the teachers are] over the moon excited about taking this back to the classroom. How disappointing would that be if they go back and they can’t actually do it because they don’t have the tools? So we try to provide them all of the tools they need to do that. … It’s a critical component, I think, of what makes this a success,” Reynolds says.

The same is true for Kansas, Thielen says. “What we have learned across all ethanol labs is they’re great, but the equipment is extremely expensive. So even though teachers are trained to teach them, they’re not teaching them because they don’t have the funds to buy the equipment.” Those supplies—and the continual support Kansas Corn offers teachers after they’ve attended the workshop—are what teachers appreciate the most about the program, she adds. “Basically, if they’re dedicated to teaching it, we want to keep giving them more resources.”

Peine agrees. “One of the hardest things to do in public schools today, or any school, is funding. Especially funding for additional supplies. So it’s great to learn the material. It’s great to provide the teacher with the curriculum, but providing them with the supplies really makes a difference, and really allows them to take it to the next step. … The last thing we want to do is teach them something and then not give them the resources to teach it on to the students.”

Several of Kansas’ larger school districts have encouraged all of their teachers to attend the workshops, Thielen says. “I think they see the vision and I think they know the importance of getting agriculture in the classroom, and so we’ve had a great response.”

In fact, the program’s been so successful that many teachers have asked to attend the workshops more than once. But Thielen says that’s not ideal, as the focus is to allow as many teachers as possible to participate. But those requests led to a change in the upcoming summer’s workshops. “This summer is the first time we’re going to do a Seed to STEM 2.0, where we’re writing new labs, many about biodiesel and ethanol, where those teachers are going to learn some more, and they’ll get more supplies to teach more labs. … If they are doing an exceptional job of teaching our labs already, let’s just keep them interested and keep providing more labs that they can teach, because that’s just going to help agriculture.” Seed to STEM is the part of the education program that focuses on curriculum for sixth through 12th graders.

Kansas Corn’s workshops also feature tours to ethanol plants. “We work very closely with our ethanol plants and we now fund teachers to take their students to an ethanol plant after they do the distillation lab,” Thielen says.

So does Ohio’s. “In Ohio, we have seven of them,” Reynolds says. “So, we try to get them into an ethanol facility where they can see it being made, see the process and how there’s not waste and it’s really environmentally friendly.”

An ethanol plant visit for Burk’s engineering class is coming up this year, giving his ethanol-focused student a field trip to look forward to. “He’s really excited about that,” Burk says.

Author: Matt Thompson
Associate Editor,
Ethanol Producer Magazine