Most fourth-graders are familiar with cheese. Most have likely seen wrapped slices and blocks of American, cheddar, and Swiss lined up, luminated in refrigerated grocery store shelves. But many fourth-graders most likely haven’t made cheese.

Fourth-grade students in Marisa Clements’ class at J.C. Parks Elementary School are no longer among that number, having spent a recent class learning The Art of Making Cheese thanks to the Mobile Science Lab of the Maryland Agriculture Education Foundation (MAEF). The trailer, along with instructor Joe McMahan, recently spent a week at Parks introducing students in prekindergarten through fifth grade to elements of agriculture via hands-on learning.

Dawn Murphy, the school librarian at Parks, put the wheels in motion to bring the MAEF mobile lab to the school. Murphy took MAEF’s Ag in the Classroom course led by Bethany Thornton, librarian at Westlake High School and winner of MAEF’s Velma Clark Excellence in Teaching About Agriculture Award in 2021. “The course was a great way to learn about the importance of agriculture and integrating it into teaching,” Murphy said. “Teaching science-type content leads me to some great collaborative lessons and activities.”

While MAEF has discovery programs available for middle and high school students to explore agriculture-related career fields, programs for elementary school students engage them in hands-on learning using one of the foundation’s three mobile labs, McMahan, a retired CCPS teacher who now leads classes for MAEF, said.

The three labs are Ag Products, Aquatics, and Food, Fiber, and You, which was the one at Parks last week. Labs were based on the age group. At Parks, kindergarten, first grade, ACHIEVE and SOARR students learned how essentially every part of a baseball game can be linked to agriculture, its origins traced back to farmland. Students took a “pinch” of various elements found at a baseball game and placed them in a clear bag. A cotton ball represented the material used to make uniforms and the string used inside a baseball; confetti in the shape of a cow represented the leather used for baseball gloves; dried corn was a stand-in for that used in popcorn and corn syrup in soft drinks and other foods. Each of Jamie Hall’s kindergarten students took “just a pinch” to throw in their bags.

Second graders experimented to figure out which crayon — petroleum- or soybean-based produced a brighter color while third, fourth, and fifth graders learned how cheese has been made dating back 10,000 years. By experimenting with different ingredients and following directions students understand the cheese-making process which includes curdling, draining, pressing, and ripening.

“The fact that it is hands-on takes an abstract concept and brings it down to a real level,” McMahan said. To learn more about the MAEF mobile lab program and others offered by the foundation, visit maefonline.com.  

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