Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 12, Issue 1 - June, 2019


Building Agricultural Literacy Programs through STEM Education

Coffey, P. , Agent Associate, University Of Maryland Extension
Ridgeway, B., Agent, University Of Maryland Extension
Brown, V. , Senior Agent, University of Maryland Extension


AgVenture benefits from the expertise of Extension professionals who engage with fourth graders about a variety of topics connecting agriculture, the environment, and its role in their lives. The program provides hands-on activities about animal, plant, and nutritional sciences. Students observe animals and farm equipment, perform experiments, and discuss and handle whole grains as they move through four learning stations. In 2016-2018, student knowledge of agriculture prior to and after the program was evaluated with a pre- and post-test, and showed a significant improvement in all three years of the program. The success of the AgVenture program can be replicated through other Extension programs nationwide.


The United States Department of Education requires STEM education to be integrated into all public schools, with standards designed to build on one another. The goal is to prepare students to pursue secondary education and careers within science focused curriculum (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Several states, including Maryland, are partnering with outside organizations to enhance curriculum offerings to highlight STEM standards and how they can be applied to real-life situations (MSDE, 2014; I-STEM Education Initiative, 2016.)

A variety of opportunities are provided to youth to enhance STEM education through experiential learning. Students who were exposed in some way to hands-on STEM activities have an increased interest in exploring STEM related subjects (Dillivan and Dillivan, 2014). Previously in Maryland, a program was developed targeting middle school students focusing on animal, plant, and environmental sciences (Barczewski et al., 2016). However, this program was intended only as a classroom curriculum and had limited opportunity for hands-on experiences with livestock and farm equipment.

AgVenture is an inclusive program used to enhance agricultural STEM practices through a fourth grade program. Several versions of AgVenture programs have been delivered in multiple areas to meet community needs throughout the United States. A similar style format of AgVenture is undertaken by the University of Arizona through a year-long program, which uses each growing season to pinpoint certain areas of agriculture taught (University of Arizona, 2015). The AgVenture program in Carroll County targets four areas of agriculture (soil/crops/agricultural equipment, watersheds, livestock production, and grain nutrition) in a one day immersive field trip experience.

AgVenture has had an historical impact within the Carroll County community in providing hands-on learning opportunities connecting fourth grade students to local agriculture. The program had a long standing history within the community until 2008, when staffing changes caused a stop to programming. The program was brought to life again in 2013 through the work of two 4-H Faculty Extension Educators, who worked together to develop an agricultural related program tying into Maryland STEM standards to meet the educational needs of fourth grade students. Incorporating established relationships with 4-H school-based programs allowed educators to recruit new schools to participate in the redesigned AgVenture program. All educators in the University of Maryland Carroll County Extension office, regardless of discipline, work together to teach AgVenture.

Throughout the years, AgVenture has been taught in a variety of settings starting as a field trip opportunity. As the program grew and needs of schools changed, program delivery changed from a field trip to classroom kits designed for volunteers to go into the schools to teach AgVenture. Through the transition of a field trip based program to classroom kits, along with a change in Extension staffing, AgVenture could no longer be sustained. With the reintroduction of the program in 2013, several changes were made for a sustainable program.

  • Building a relationship with the public school system through the 4-H Youth Development Program. Working with the Title 1 schools in the county to provide a field trip program for those students.
  • Identifying the relationship of the program outputs to the Maryland School Department of Education Standards of Practices.
  • Accessing grant funding through local agricultural organizations to establish a base of funding to provide free transportation to participating schools.
  • Buy-in from Extension educators within multiple discipline areas of the Extension Office to provide several hands-on educational stations to re-establish the program.

With the reintroduction of AgVenture in 2013, the program was first offered to Title 1 schools within the county. Title 1 schools were targeted to increase experiential learning opportunities for schools that are considered at-risk to ensure they were afforded the same programs as other schools throughout the county. As the program has continued to grow, the Title 1 schools have continued to be asked to participate in the program each year. Once the Title 1 schools have committed to the program, the remaining spots are open to schools which participated in previous program years. If there are any spots left, the program is opened up to the remaining elementary schools and are filled on a first-come, first served policy. AgVenture reached maximum capacity of ten schools over a 5-day week in 2018, nearly 900 students. In 2013, the program received additional funding which allowed AgVenture to provide all five stations (Table 1) to the three Title 1 schools in Carroll County, schools identified as having large concentrations of low-income students who receive supplemental federal funding to assist in meeting student educational goals. Direct communication with the lead teachers and the principals at each of these schools has been vital to participation of the program. 

Throughout the years an important component of AgVenture has been the community stakeholders and organizations within agriculture to partner with the Carroll County Extension Office. An example is the local agriculture equipment dealer who provide the use of a combine, tractor and planter for students to learn how technology is used to produce their food. Grain producers in the county have provided 50 lbs of corn, wheat, barley, oats and soybeans to be used in making grain jars, and others have loaned the use of livestock to enhance the interaction between the students and agriculture. The Carroll County Agricultural Center donates the use of four buildings so each station has enough room for the students, enhancing the hands-on portion of each station.


Methods and Results

AgVenture is a 4-hour long program using a station rotation system held in the spring of each year. In the first year of the program (2016), five stations were taught to fourth grade students by Extension Educators and Specialists. In 2016 and 2017, a four station model was necessary as limitations by the Maryland Department of Agriculture were imposed with poultry not being allowed for exhibition purposes due to Avian Influenza concerns. Eliminating the poultry station allowed the program to increase time at the four remaining stations, which resulted in positive feedback from the teachers. Each station consists of a lecture style format followed with an experiential learning method. All stations are taught by an interdisciplinary group of Extension faculty members, with some stations utilizing trained volunteers in those program areas (Ex. Master Gardner volunteers). Table 1 includes a description of each station and its hands-on activity, along with the STEM standard(s) (MSDE, 2014) addressed.


Table 1: Integration of STEM Standards into AgVenture Program. Layers! Broilers! Chicks! was discontinued after 2016 in accordance with Maryland Department of Agriculture policy.

Station Station Description Hands-on Activity MSDE STEM Standards of Practice met
Grain Nutrition Explore the roles whole grains play in our daily health. Create whole grain trail mix, create grain jars and taste zucchini to connect with Soil Isn’t Just Dirt! (Fig.1) 3E
Livestock RoundUp! Explore livestock production and by-products. Tye dye milk and interact with livestock (Fig. 2). 1A and 3C
Soil Isn’t Just Dirt! Learn and identify differences in soil profiles, organic matter and equipment technology. Plant zucchini seeds and learn about how farmers plant crops (Fig. 3). 2A
Watersheds Discover how community members have an impact on your local watersheds. Create and observe effects on watersheds and implement best management practices (Fig. 4). 2A and 3F
Layers! Broilers! Chicks! Discover the importance of the poultry industry to the Maryland Economy. Investigate feed, grains, eggs, and poultry care (Not pictured) 3A


Within each of the four stations used for the AgVenture program, each station provides a hands-on learning opportunity for students to participate. Using an experiential learning approach enhances the engagement students make to the curriculum standards. Through the hands-on component students are engaged, having fun, while still learning the STEM pieces of agricultural education.


Children watch an educator explaining the human digestive system.











Figure 1. Grain Nutrition provides an opportunity for students to interact with a digestive system and the effects whole grain nutrition plays within everyone’s body. Here students learn about the difference between whole and refined grains.


Children interact with dairy calf and sheep

Figure 2. Livestock RoundUp gives students the experience of learning about and interacting with livestock animals, like sheep and dairy cows.


Children learn about and interact with large farm equipment













Figure 3. Students learn how crops are planted, cared for, and harvested on an industrial scale at the Soil Isn’t Just Dirt! station.



A child simulates rain to examine pollutant runoff into Maryland watersheds















Figure 4. The Watershed station provides opportunities for students to observe the movement of pollutants in the environment as they compare excess applications of pesticides, fertilizers and trash to proper applications.


University IRB approval was obtained in 2016 to administer pre- and post-test quizzes to fourth grade students participating in the AgVenture program. Parents received a letter notifying them of the data collection, providing an opportunity for parents to opt their child out of the study. Through the letter to parents, they were notified that their child will still be a part of the AgVenture program even if they chose not to participate in the study. Pre-tests were provided to each teacher before they came to the program. To maintain anonymity, students were asked to write their initials and birth month on the quizzes. Pre- and post-tests were color coded for each school to help match student quizzes together, with test paper color selected randomly for each school prior to distribution. The pre- and post-test contained five questions in 2016 and four questions in 2017 and 2018, with one question relating to each station (Table 2). Test questions were designed by each station instructor to emphasize information pertinent to their topic, and to meet MSDE curriculum standards.


Table 2. Pre- and post-test questions.

Station Question
Grain Nutrition What are whole grains?
Livestock RoundUp! What are 2 grains that cows eat?
Soil Isn’t Just Dirt! What is the main difference between soil and dirt?
Watersheds What is a watershed?
Layers! Broilers! Chicks! In what part of Maryland are most chickens raised? (2016 only) 



Pre and post-test total scores were compared for each student using a paired t-test to test for significant improvements in overall score (p < 0.05; Table 3). A significant improvement in knowledge was observed in all three years of the program, with student scores improving by at least 30%.


Table 3. Pre- and post-test scores, 2016-2018.

  2016 2017 2018
Number of students 384 677 710
Pretest mean score 37.0% 31.6% 31.6%
Posttest mean score 65.8% 62.9% 62.6%
t-test 30.18, p < 0.001 57.07, p < 0.001 34.37, p < 0.001




There are two primary limitations to conducting AgVenture: agriculture regulations and coordination of scheduling between disciplines and facility(s). A primary issue in moving the program forward is considering regulations of the Maryland Department of Agriculture when involving livestock in programming needs. In following regulations, this led to the poultry station ending in 2016 due to outbreaks of Avian Influenza and the potential concerns of an outbreak in Maryland for the poultry industry. With the ending of the poultry station, the concept of a general livestock station was created.

Secondly, coordinating the many factors can be concerning at times with the number of individuals and facilities involved in the program. Scheduling planning meetings can become challenging when working with a variety of educators in and out of the Carroll County Extension Office. Another impact on the program is the time it takes to reach out to local businesses (farm equipment, livestock farms, etc.) several months leading up to the program to ensure needed materials are provided to meet the needs of each station. Finally, conflicts can arise with using the County Agricultural Center for the program, as planning for the program must start a year ahead of time to ensure the buildings are reserved for the entire week. Timing of the event can become tricky if the Agricultural Center has paid events to use the buildings and adjustments must be made in changing program dates to changing times and dates the buildings can be set up prior to the program.



AgVenture results show the program is successful in increasing agriculture related STEM knowledge from pre-test to post-test. Some variability within the knowledge gained per subject area was found. Differences in variability could be attributed to previous instruction students received on certain topics. For example, a higher knowledge gain towards watersheds was indicated as this is a subject schools were beginning to introduce in their classrooms.

Program success isn’t found just in the quiz results, but the feedback provided by elementary teachers to the Extension professionals throughout the year. Youth who have participated in AgVenture will reach out to educators at other events telling them what they learned during the program. Partnerships have been established with participating teachers in reaching out to use watershed models or to have Extension professionals come to their classrooms for a variety of lessons.

The success of the program has led to increased participation year after year.  A waitlist has been started for schools who wish to participate, both within the county and in neighboring Pennsylvania. The coordinated AgVenture program has increased visuability of the Agriculture and 4H program within a county that is becoming increasingly urbanized. Exposing youth to AgVenture has the potential to increase interest in both agriculture and STEM as students age.


Literature Cited

Barczewski, A., Bennett, S., Gordon, D., Hutson, T., & BhaduriHauck, S. (2016). Using the AGsploration: the science of Maryland agriculture curriculum as a tool to increase youth appreciation and understanding of agriculture and science. Journal of Youth Development 11 (3):141-146. Retrieved from

Dillivan, K.D. & Dillivan, M.N. (2014). Student interest in STEM disciplines: Results from a summer day camp.  Journal of Extension 52(1), Article 1RIB5. Retrieved from

I-STEM Education Initiative. (2016). I-STEM education initiative. Retrieved from

Maryland State Department of Education. (2014). Framework and instructional guide grades K-5. Retrieved from

University of Arizona. (2015). History of ag-literacy outreach at the MAC farm. Retrieved from

U.S Department of Education (2015). Elementary/middle school STEM full implementation. Retrieved from