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Ag Biotech Workshops Offer NC Teachers Hands-On Insight

By Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer

Middle school teachers in a previous workshop extract DNA from plant tissue.

Middle and high school teachers have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of agricultural biotechnology in a pair of Ag Biotech Industry in the Classroom workshops beginning in July.

The workshops, organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, will be held at North Carolina State University for middle school teachers and at Meredith College for high school teachers. They feature hands-on experiments, lectures on the science of ag biotech, and company tours. Companies participating include Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, and Novozymes.

Karthik Aghoram, a professor at Meredith who has conducted the workshops for high school teachers for the past five years, said they also include spirited discussions of topics such as the science and use of GMOs.

He said the workshops, open to 25 middle school participants in a three-day program and 22 high school teachers over five days, generally have about 50 percent science teachers and 50 percent ag career and technical education (CTE) instructors. “This year we have extended the invitation to food and consumer science teachers,” Aghoram said, “because ag biotech includes food issues.”

Participants not only meet company scientists, they also interact with farmers using ag biotech in their fields. Wednesday each week of the workshops, participants gather at the Biotech Center for group discussions on GMOs, food safety and for career panel discussions.

“The workshops serve to introduce teachers to the latest in technology, and showcase how the technology is used in modern agriculture,” said Nandini Mendu, Ph.D., the Biotech Center’s ag biotech enterprise and technology development director, who oversees the teacher workshops. 

“The questions on food safety and genetic modification are discussed to help the teachers conduct similar fact-based discussions with their students. Additionally, the opportunity to tour and visit with scientists in the companies that do such research and produce seeds for the farmers, and to meet farmers and see the farms where the technology is used, gives these teachers a rounded perspective on how modern technology is being used to address the needs to feed a growing population sustainably.”

Important for teachers to meet with farmers

Aghoram thinks it is particularly important for the teachers to meet actual farmers. “We bring in a panel of farmers from across the state – one who grows biotech crops, one who grows organic crops with no biotech, and an animal farmer, usually a hog farmer. It’s eye-opening for our science teachers to see how agriculture actually works in the trenches.”

He adds, “They get to know the trade-offs in agriculture and how much intellectual ability it takes for someone to run a farm. Farmers in general get a bad rap in society. Urban media centers are too far removed from the farm. So we have a role to play in dispelling some of the misconceptions about farming.”

The middle school workshops also include a first-day farm tour organized by the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, a partner in that workshop. In addition to the tour, it features a panel discussion by a farmer/grower panel.

On day one of the middle school workshops, participants will be traveling to Overman Farms located near Goldsboro, said Michele Reedy, director of the NCFB Ag in the Classroom program.

“Here, teachers will see a row crop grower and a sow and hog finishing facility, with a tour and discussion with owners Harrell and Lorenda Overman. We will be joined by the Farm Bureau’s commodity policy specialist, Jay Boyette, who will speak with the group during our travels in the morning.”

Later in the day, she said, the group will travel to a research facility for lunch and a panel discussion.

In other sessions, the middle school teachers will tour one of the two Novozymes BioAg facilities in Triangle and have roundtable discussions of career pathways. They will hear lectures and panel discussions on genetic engineering and GMOs, explore soil biology, and do hands-on experiments. The BioNetwork program of the state's community college system is also partnering in the middle school workshop.

High school teachers' workshop increases knowledge, provides classroom tools

In the high school classroom workshops, Aghoram said, “Our goal is twofold: We want activities that benefit the teachers from a professional development standpoint, which may not directly translate to the classroom. We also offer simple exercises they can take from the workshop and implement at the high school level. We try to strike a balance between those two.”

One of the experiments teachers do in the high school workshops involves using a GMO detection kit. They grind up both GMO-free corn chips from Whole Foods and regular corn chips without a GMO-free label. “They learn about how different genes go into making a GMO and we talk about how they developed. They get to see the presence of the DNA in the GMO chips and lack of it in the non-GMO chips.”

The following discussions about the benefits and risks of GMOs “get people stirred up,” he said.

Experiments of this type are particularly useful to the teachers since the equipment needed for the testing is expensive and it is an experience they might not have otherwise.

Adding glow helps to show

In another hands-on experiment, the teachers take a gene native to the jellyfish that codes for a protein that gives them a green glow. They put it in bacterial cells which then glow green. “It reinforces the concept that you take a gene from one species to another and it will express that gene. There is nothing mystical about it.”

Aghoram said he and J.F. Webb High School teacher Justyn Phelps team-teach the high school workshops. “Justyn brings a great perspective on what the teachers want and need.”

Most of the workshop activities get great reviews, Aghoram said, but those that do not are “tweaked or tossed. It’s an evolving process.”

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