Science of Ag Challenge highlights next generation of ag leaders

(From the left) Haley Mouser, Theresa Gustafson and Lily Krona talk about their project with Minnesota State 4-H Director, Dr. Jennifer Skuza

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

They call themselves “Team Future Generation” because they are on a mission to spark talented young people like themselves to join the agriculture industry they love.

Haley Mouser, Theresa Gustafson and Lily Krona are farm kids and 4-H’ers from the Bemidji area. For the past two years they have participated in the Minnesota 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge, an annual event that challenges school-aged children to come up with problem solving ideas in ag. Team Future Generation came away with the top prize in 2019 and received scholarships toward a post-secondary school of their choice.

The group devised a curriculum to teach kids in third, fourth and fifth grades about GMOs and gene editing. The received wisdom is that kids that young aren’t ready to learn about such sophisticated matters. But this trio decided to find out for themselves, hypothesizing that if kids can learn about these important 21st century tools in agricultural science, they will at the very least be educated consumers.

“We wanted to put agricultural science into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, and get STEM into the elementary setting,” Mouser explains their choice of subject.

The trio taught upwards of 130 kids in a number of elementary classrooms.

One key to connecting with the young students was creating a positive emotional connection with both farming and genetic technology.

For example, the group explained the instant they focus on pigs the kids are ready to hear more—call it the “Babe/Charlotte’s Web” factor. When the kids hear that gene editing can help prevent pigs from dying from African Swine Fever, they have an appetite for learning more about gene editing.

What takes Science of Agriculture Challenge beyond the realm of a typical school science fair is that each team pairs up with an industry mentor who lends real-world information and insight to the teams. Team Future Generation worked with Natasha Mortenson, communications director for Riverview LLP, a beef and dairy company with operations in Minnesota.

“Theresa, Lily, and Haley are dedicated to giving others an experience to connect the science of agriculture with their food,” said Mortenson. “The girls put a tremendous amount of dedication into learning about genetics and science advancement so they could portray to others the safety and facts of technology relating to food and farming.”

For Science of Agriculture Challenge participants, the benefits of the event go beyond the opportunity to win a scholarship.

“I am a lot more self-confident since we started the Science of Agriculture challenge,” says Krona. “I am not afraid to stand up in front of people and just start talking. I’ve made a lot of friends through this project. We have gained a lot of knowledge since two years ago when we first started working on this. Our presentation skills have gone through the roof. It’s crazy how much we have improved.”

The Minnesota 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge is available to 4-H members in all 87 counties of the state, and the program is supported by many in agriculture, including the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

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