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Maryland Teacher Making Agriculture a Class Act

‘The nice thing about agriculture is it ties into so many careers and it’s personal to every student’

May 2024

James McCrobie, social and geographical sciences teacher at Salisbury Middle School, frequently uses agriculture in classroom lessons reinforced by the school’s garden area. (Photo by Sean Clougherty)

by Sean Clougherty
Managing Editor, Delmarva Farmer

SALISBURY, Md. — When James McCrobie attends the 2024 National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference in Salt Lake City this summer, he’ll be on the hunt for anything that helps further integrate agricultural concepts into his middle school classrooms.

McCrobie, this year’s winner of the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation’s Velma Clark Excellence in Teaching About Ag Award, is part of a six-person team of Salisbury Middle School teachers in its NextGen STEM Academy, that uses agriculture frequently as a teaching tool for a very of subjects.

Native of Garrett County, Md., McCrobie started teaching in Wicomico County Public Schools in 2010, first at Bennett Middle School in Frutiland, the moving to Salisbury Middle six years ago and joining the academy staff.

“Agriculture was a priority area for us,” he said. “We came together as a group and decided that was going to be one of the focus areas.”

He described the academy as “a school within a school” that seeks to build students’ leadership skills to solve community and global problems collaboratively through curiosity, creativity and innovation.

McCrobie teaches social and geographical sciences in the academy alongside teachers for math, natural sciences, engineering, computer science, literacy and research.

Students can apply from anywhere in Wicomico County, and each year, a new group of 50 sixth graders enters the three-year program.

McCrobie said in his classes, he aims to connect the history of present-day issues to their future possibilities, exploring how they have evolved and how they can improve.

Sixth grade lessons focus on exploring the larger food system, industrialization of agriculture, farming around river systems, crops and growing problems with the global green revolution, animals from field to store and the changing climate.

Seventh grade lessons hone in on food production and sustainability. Case studies include the Mayan and Aztec farming methods all the way to modern hydroponics and vertical farming. In eighth grade, several activities revolve around agriculture’s impact in U.S. history, leading up to discussion about how to modify the school garden and address the school community’s food security.

“For us we look at this as everything is connected,” McCrobie said. “The nice thing about agriculture is it ties into so many careers and it’s personal to every student. It’s something that they’re going to be interacting with the rest of their lives.”

The school garden, official named the NextGen Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment includes a greenhouse, raised beds for vegetable and herb growing, edible fruit trees and plants, pollinator garden, composting area, wetland pond demonstration and pocket meadow demonstration. The outdoor lab helps reinforce classroom lessons with hands-on experiences.

“There’s no better way to understand than to do it yourself,” he said.

Another DIY component for the students this year is a full redesign of the outdoor space, rebuilding the beds, and revamping the greenhouse and the FarmBot automated robot that oversees one of the bed’s watering, seeding, weeding and crop sensing needs.

“They’ve got all the plans made,” he said of students who have taken lead in the project. “They contacted the vendors, they’re involved in the fundraising. Our eighth graders could probably tell you everything about the garden area because they’ve lived it.”

McCrobie said it’s most rewarding to see what former students have done after the academy and talked about how the agricultural lessons influenced their choices.

He said many have gone on to Parkside High School’s horticulture program as well as pursued agriculture related studies in college.

“A lot of times it’s the kid that didn’t always act interested when they were here but it sticks with them,” he said.

The Clark award comes with a $500 stipend to go toward teaching materials for McCrobie’s classroom and a and a scholarship to attend the national conference in Salt Lake City.

“I’d like to get some ideas on how they integrate agriculture more so than we are now,” he said on attending the conference. Urban agriculture is one area he can see worked into the academy curriculum and ways to bring in animals also intrigue him. It could present challenges, but he said it’s worth investigating, for the academy’s mission and the students.

“I absolutely love what I’m doing,” he said. “I benefit from having students who are genuinely interested in learning.”

This article comes from The Delmarva Farmer, an agricultural newspaper for the mid-Atlantic region.