Texas: STEM Teachers Tour AgriLife Research Farm

Dr. Brent Auvermann, Texas A&M AgriLife Research leader, discusses the STEM involvement in irrigation with Region 16 teachers. Photo: Kay Ledbetter, Texas A&M AgriLife

Texas A&M AgriLife Research hosted a group of about 20 science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, teachers from Region 16 schools recently at the research farm near Bushland.

“We were interested in showing them the kinds of research we do that involve the STEM disciplines,” said Dr. Brent Auvermann, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center director in Amarillo and leader of the tour.

Brenda Foster, Region 16 learning leader-instructional leadership in Amarillo, said the visit was in participation with a Texas Teacher Externship grant provided by the Texas Education Agency and Texas Regional Collaboratives to help teachers gain real-world experiences to engage students in the classroom.

“I was hooked when Dr. Auvermann said, ‘I use exponentials and matrices every day,’” Foster said. “I want teachers to see the application for the math they teach and sometimes have no idea how or when students will ever be able to use it.”

Auvermann said the group spent about six hours touring the various research projects and buildings.

The Science of Farming

“We looked at biology, physics, some irrigation engineering; we discussed how geometry played a role in our research,” he said. “The teachers saw sorghum and wheat breeding, irrigation engineering, beef cattle feeding and the biochemistry related to cattle. We looked at entomology and the role bugs play not only in crop damage, but also in serving as vectors or vehicles for diseases getting to our crops.”

Region 16 encompasses the majority of the Texas Panhandle, with many different soil types, varying climates and availability of groundwater, Auvermann said.

“From the colder north to the warmer south, from the clay soils of the central Panhandle to the sandy peanut ground of the northwest and southeast, and it is wetter in some areas and much drier in others,” he explained. “As researchers, we’ve got to address all these factors in our work.”

AgFax Weed Solutions

Auvermann said it was important to show the teachers the wide variety of cropping system approaches in agriculture, livestock-related work and even some environmental research about greenhouse gases and dust.

The group spent time looking at forage sorghum trials, which historically are used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency to update grain sorghum eligibility tables used in management assistance loans and loan deficiency payments based on grain yield and forage types.

Another location’s discussion involved evapotranspiration, which is water loss due to evaporation from the soil and transpiration by the plant. AgriLife Research and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service in Bushland are national leaders in this field of study.

The discussion included the mathematics involved in the design of the irrigation system, and how research must determine how much of the water is lost to evaporation and how much goes to transpiration.

“We want to help producers become better managers of their water,” Auvermann said. “We would like to shift, as water becomes more and more precious to us, water use out of evaporation and into transpiration, because then it is being used by the plants we are trying to grow. That’s a big chunk of our research out here, moving water use from evaporation into transpiration, allowing us to save the water that used to be evaporating.”

Auvermann also explained the Internet of Things. He said the center pivot irrigation system can be used as a data collection center, allowing researchers and producers alike to hang a variety of sensors on the center pivot and collect soil moisture, plant growth status, disease status, nitrogen and other data as the equipment moves through the field.

“In other words, we are moving everything towards high automation, using sensor technology to tell us when action is required,” he said.

Corina Srygley, a Randall High School teacher from Canyon, said, “I didn’t realize how technologically advanced farming had become. I remember sitting with my dad when I was young and him being told that someday a computer could run his combine and/or tractor. Now I know that has become a reality. That is amazing.”

An event like this really has benefits that go both ways, Auvermann said.

Educating Next Generation’s Farmers and Ag Researchers

“We need a lot of student workers, and what’s the pool from which we are going to draw? It’s the Region 16 schools,” he said. “These teachers are training our future employees, so we are super interested in enriching their educational experience so when they come to us for a job during the summer, they have been exposed to the kinds of things that are important to us.

“And then on the flip side, I think it benefits the teachers themselves who are interested in professional development and adding to their tool kit, giving themselves more options for working with their students and enriching their students’ educational experiences,” Auvermann said.

Tanya Quisenberry, a West Texas Middle School teacher in Stinnett, said she has a limited farming/ranching background, but the AgriLife tour was eye opening as they learned how technology had advanced and how many opportunities it offers students.

“It also gave me several talking points with students about math, science and technology and how pivotal it is for students to collaborate, be innovative out-of-the-box thinkers, and apply what they learn in class,” Quisenberry said.

Tulia High School teacher Melissa Rodriguez said the sustainability of the farming and ranching industry hinges on math, science and people willing to take a chance.

“The folks at AgriLife have a passion for finding new and innovative ways to improve the systems already in place by utilizing technology,” Rodriguez said. “I learned we should always be moving forward, dreaming, trying, failing and trying again until we find what works. We should be instilling those values in our students; encouraging them to take a chance.”

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