In the midst of a five-day economic development tour of Virginia, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine made a special point Thursday to stop at Carroll County High School to see the nation’s first STEM Lab for agriculture.
“I’m here because you guys are doing some innovative things,” Kaine told a class of five students in the cutting-edge CCHS classroom.
Also the Governor of Virginia from 2006-2010, Kaine said the training of workforce is critical for economic development. It is one reason he has always been focused on Career and Technical Education and Training.
“This is a very unique program that has clear technical training around ag in a high school with science and research applied, work at the farm that the county owns,” Kaine said. “I heard about it and I wanted to see what the students were doing. It was fun to hear them talk, not only about their technical projects, but how working in the lab helps them on their academic coursework – how biology and chemistry suddenly comes to life when they are working in an ag lab every day. It was a good thing to hear about.”
Before meeting with CCHS students, County Administrator Gary Larrowe told Kaine that Carroll County has a strong history in agriculture. In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act created vocational agriculture in a high school setting, paving the way for Woodlawn High School to be the first to offer the subject in the U.S. The STEM Lab for agriculture at CCHS is also a first in the nation and takes Carroll to the next level, Larrowe said.
“Carroll County has positioned itself so well. We actually have our own school farm, about 60 acres, just about three miles from here. They raise beef, they raise crops…we have partners with Food City, Virginia Tech, and we are partnering with the community college,” Carroll County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Strader Blankenship said. “Our students can go to the farm, they can test the samples to see what’s in the soil, they can take larger samples, we can grow crops, check and see what they look like under a microscope, we can actually take them and can them in our culinary arts’ program. So we can see the process all the way from growing it up to production.”
Carroll is focusing on its strengths and utilizing ag as a sector of economic development, Larrowe said. With the Food Modernization Act that was passed through the Farm Bill, he said there will soon be need for food-based science for food security and food safety in the U.S.
“We really feel like that is a niche we can end up being ahead of the curve on here. These are the same labs, the same lab protocols these students would end up using practical applications out into the workforce, and we could end up being a hub of food safety, along the East Coast at least,” Larrowe said. “We’ve got a great group of kids that are learning practical applications of their science, technology, engineering and math because they can solve problems for the local farmers that they bring to them. And so this is a place that not only can you end up learning production, but you can also learn the science behind that and apply it. And it does not necessarily have to be students that would go into the ag field. We could have our next medical doctors, our next scientists that come out of this, the next generation of engineers, anything that is associated because they are using that practical application.”
As Governor, Kaine said he did some things to expand career and technical academies. Now on the senate, he was part of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Caucus that recently introduced three bills on CTE into No Child Left Behind. Kaine said most people don’t realize ag and forestry combined are still the biggest economic sector in Virginia.
“So I was really interested to come see a STEM program that is really focused on the ag and forestry side, and so that is why I was really excited to come and see what these guys are up to,” Kaine said.
As a biology teacher, STEM Lab Manager Rachelle Rasco said the STEM Lab for Ag has been wonderful because of the applications it allows students to use. The class has partnered with Virginia Tech to take diseased plants, allowing the students to extract DNA, amplify it and sequence it.
“We gave them the sequences and they can use a couple of databases to identify that pathogen,” Rasco said. “That is about as cutting edge, I think, as you can possibly get.”
At that point, Kaine began interacting with students in the class. He asked Bristal Upchurch to tell him about the Virginia Tech project.
“It was pretty cool. They brought in diseased leaves from their greenhouse and we got the DNA and ran all them for sequencing to find out what disease it was,” Upchurch said.
Kayley Phillips then began to show Kaine what the class had learned in its soils lab. She said students took samples of soil and then tested for pH levels and looked for different nutrients. The class can even look for bacteria growing in the soil.
Another student, Isabelle Largen, demonstrated how the class can test if local streams are healthy. If samples show certain worms such as flatworms or leeches, the class can infer that the stream is not as healthy as it should be.
Student Justin Light showed Kaine how the class can test for E. coli. By going to the same streams in Carroll and neighboring counties, it can perform coliform tests. The coliforms are then put into a gel with a special dye that turns the coliforms into colors.
“The pink color is a coliform, but they are not harmful. It turns black purple when it’s E. coli,” Light said.
CCHS Ag teacher and farmer Randy Webb said the STEM Lab is a model program for 21st century learners allowing Carroll to crank out students who can leave high school and get a STEM career, or allow them to get a post-secondary education.
“The labs we’re doing here, a lot of them don’t get that experience until their junior or senior year in college or even into grad school,” Webb said.
Student Blake Hughes showed Kaine an example of a rapid pH test that allows students to check for salt, oxygen, nitrate and other elements. The senator asked how many of the students had done internships on farms in the county. Assistant Superintendent Mark Burnette pointed out that Light’s father, James, is one of the largest farmers in Carroll County. Kaine asked if Light did an internship with his father.
“A forced internship,” Light said, drawing a big laugh from the class.
Webb noted the school system can raise different types of vegetables at the county farm. It’s also building a greenhouse donated by Food City that will allow for an aquaculture program.
“This is impressive,” Kaine said. “I feel good about these students.”
Larrowe said Carroll County is building a culture rather than just agriculture – it’s a culture of education. CCHS Principal Chuck Thompson said he wanted the students to know it’s not every day a former governor and current U.S. Senator visits the high school.
“We hope you’ve seen today the practical applications these students are learning and will take forward with them for the rest of their lives,” Thompson said.
Allen Worrell can be reached by calling (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN