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Garden TOOLS: Technology-rich Agricultural Engineering Opportunities in Outdoor Learning Spaces

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Biological and Agricultural Engineering Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Biological and Agricultural Engineering

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Paper Authors


Erin Ingram University of Nebraska, Lincoln

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Erin Ingram is a science literacy and community engagement coordinator interested in designing K-12 STEM learning experiences and educator professional development for use in formal and informal education settings.

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Jennifer Keshwani University of Nebraska, Lincoln

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Jenny Keshwani is an Associate Professor of Biological Systems Engineering and Science Literacy Specialist in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is active in promoting science and engineering education in both formal and informal settings through her research, extension, and outreach activities. Dr. Keshwani is actively engaged in several cross-disciplinary regional and national efforts related to STEM education and outreach. Most recently, she was part of a team that received NSF funding to engage youth in STEM through wearable technologies.

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Tammera J. Mittelstet University of Nebraska, Lincoln

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Tammera J. Mittelstet is a current Doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education, where she serves as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for the Elementary Science Methods course. She is involved in research that focuses on STEM integration, Elementary Teacher STEM identity and self-efficacy development, and the interactions between Formal and Informal learning entities.

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Julie Thomas University of Nebraska, Lincoln

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Julie Thomas is a Research Professor of science education in the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Thomas’ research has focused on children’s science learning and teacher professional development. Proud accomplishments include collaborative efforts – such as No Duck Left Behind, a partnership with waterfowl biologists to promote wetland education efforts, and Engineering is Everywhere (E2), a partnership with a materials engineer to develop a an efficient model for STEM career education. Thomas has been active in professional associations such as the School Science and Mathematics Association (SSMA-Past Executive Director and the Council for Elementary Children International (CESI-Retiring President).

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As demand for food and energy continues to grow, so, too, does the importance of understanding agricultural systems and technologies. There is a need to prepare a science-literate citizenry capable of making informed decisions related to food, energy, and water in a world of rapid technological advancement. Outdoor learning spaces, such as school and community gardens, offer a compelling venue for K-12 students to engage in place-based, interdisciplinary STEM learning. While these spaces often support science instruction, technology and engineering learning opportunities are limited. To address this need, a new program called Garden TOOLS (Technology Opportunities in Outdoor Learning Spaces) has been developed to engage upper elementary students (grades 3-5) in coding programmable BBC Micro:bit microcontrollers as environmental sensors to facilitate exploration and technology-rich engineering projects in outdoor learning spaces. This program aims to cultivate learners’ 21st-century skill development in preparation for a modernizing agricultural workforce and encourage learners to pursue career pathways related to agricultural engineering.

During Garden TOOLS programming, youth begin by using BBC Micro:bits pre-coded as outdoor technology tools including a compass, counter, thermometer, light level meter, and soil moisture probe. Students then engage in basic tutorials to learn to code the BBC Micro:bit using a block-based programming platform. A series of coding projects expand student understanding of circuits, sensors, and fundamental coding concepts. As youth gain computational thinking skills through programming experiences, they eventually apply their understanding to address student-identified garden challenges particular to their site. For example, students may program the BBC Micro:bit to monitor soil moisture levels to establish an irrigation schedule.

The Garden TOOLS program is a work-in-progress but has received an enthusiastic reception from participants including youth and formal and informal educators. Development efforts have focused on designing and piloting multiple instructional supports including standards-aligned curriculum materials suitable for use in formal or informal education settings and professional development training for after-school staff, pre-service and in-service elementary teachers, and Extension personnel. So far, professional development training has been conducted with 93 informal educators and 178 formal educators.

Ingram, E., & Keshwani, J., & Mittelstet, T. J., & Thomas, J. (2020, June), Garden TOOLS: Technology-rich Agricultural Engineering Opportunities in Outdoor Learning Spaces Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34699

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