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Students From Across PA Experience Agroecology First Hand at the 2009 Agroecology Day

Posted: September 29, 2009

Counting carabids in a cup; Claude the clod and other critters; infiltration by rotation races; pernicious plants and weedy wanderers…what do these topics have in common?
Students from five high schools across Pennsylvania convened at Rock Springs for the 2009 Agroecology Day.

Students from five high schools across Pennsylvania convened at Rock Springs for the 2009 Agroecology Day.

They were the hands-on activities presented to nearly a hundred high school students during AgroEcology Day 2009. Hosted by Penn State’s Agronomy Research Farm and presented by Agroecology faculty, staff and students, AgroEcology Day was held on September 16th with students and teachers from five Pennsylvania high schools participating in the fun-filled field day.

“Learn how agroecologists are working to improve our quality of life!” was the theme of the day. One goal of the event was to introduce high school students and teachers to Agroecology – an interdisciplinary major shared between the Departments of Crop and Soil Sciences, Entomology, and Plant Pathology, all within Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Another goal was to demonstrate the intricate interconnections between crops, soils, insects, plants and sustainable agroecosystems.

Throughout the day students from Clearfield, New Holland, Gettysburg, Kutztown, and Somerset rotated through the four interactive presentations – sometimes walking between sites, and sometimes riding through the fields in wagons to get to sites further from the home base. Each station focused on one particular area of this broad and diverse major that studies the science of sustainable agriculture.

Examining pit-fall traps for ground beetles
Students examine ground beetles at Agroecology Day. View a slideshow of the event...

The Entomology Department introduced students to the extremely diverse insect family, Carabidae, with “The ground (beetles) beneath your feet.” At this station students examined specimens of these beetles and observed their large eyes, spiny legs, and huge jaws. They discovered that ground beetles are incredibly fast, ferocious predators with enormous appetites. But this is a good thing. They learned that ground beetles are very important biological control agents in agroecosystems as they devour destructive insects such as caterpillars, maggots, and ants or, for the non-carnivorous species, the seeds of troublesome weeds. Students made pit-fall traps to catch and count ground beetles and compared the diversity and abundance of these carabids from plowed and no-till organic agriculture plots.

The Department of Crop and Soil Sciences had two presentations. The first was “Watch Soil Breathe! See Soil Critters Wriggle!” Students witnessed how soils breathe with a “Soil Respire-O-Meter” (soils in sealed jars attached to containers of green–colored water). As soil organisms in the jars consumed O2, their CO2 “breath” was trapped in solution, creating suction and causing green color to rise in the connected tubing.

Claude the Clod
Claude the Clod was a 4000x life-size replica of a soil aggregate, complete with accompanying soil organisms. View a slideshow of the event...

Students then were introduced to Claude the Clod, a scale model of a soil aggregate magnified 4000 times. A great way to learn about soil food webs, the model featured Styrofoam “springtails” the size of kittens and a “nematode” the size of a small boa constrictor. Students also looked at soil protozoans through microscopes and compared the sizes of the actual microorganisms with their 4000X counterparts on Claude the Clod.

“Infiltration Races – which crop rotation wins the race?” was the second Crop and Soil Sciences presentation. Here students learned how soil organisms help soil quality by binding particles into aggregates and discovered how these aggregates improve aeration and water infiltration. They observed how soil aggregation is affected by different crop rotations through a hands-on demonstration in the field. Students selected a plot, pounded an infiltration ring into the soil, added a set amount of water and timed it as in drained into the soil. Based on the infiltration data from different plots students were encouraged to consider which crop rotation produced the best aggregation – which one won the race.

Students learn what makes a plant a weed
Students learned what makes a plant a weed and how to use ecological techniques to control them. View a slideshow of the event...

The Department of Plant Pathology used the Agronomy Farm’s weed garden as the location for their presentation, “Weedy Invaders vs. Biological Controls.”  Here students walked through the field and were introduced to many of our most problematic and aggressive weeds. Participants learned what makes a plant a weed, how to identify many weed species, where they come from and how they affect agroecosystems. As they explored the weed garden students considered alternatives for weed control such as synthetic herbicides, and discovered how living organisms and natural predators can often successfully replace these chemicals, acting as biological controls for these pernicious plants.

During their day of fun hands-on activities, students minds and bodies were fed, especially thank to a nutritious lunch of grilled hot dogs and veggie burgers, baked beans, cookies, chips, and fresh from the field corn on the cob and apples provided by our sponsors and cooked by our own faculty and staff. The College of Agricultural Sciences, Environment and Natural Resources Institute, Agronomy Club and Agroecology faculty all helped introduce the groups to the exciting world of Agroecology and encouraged participants to return again next year for AgroEcology Day 2010!

By Kate Butler, Program Coordinator, Agroecology Major