Few science museums use the word 'agriculture' to teach

Study to plant a seed with museum officials to integrate ag into how they teach about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Walk into a science museum, and you may read the words "paleontology" or "astronomy," but you're not likely to find the word "agriculture" in any science museum, even though many exhibits relate to agricultural content or practices.

Katie Stofer found this gap when she surveyed 29 science museums in cities of all sizes across the U.S., and her findings are published in a new study in the journal Science Education & Civic Engagement.

"Unfortunately, we have effectively separated agriculture from the other sciences," said Stofer, a research assistant professor in agricultural education and communication at the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences (UFL/IFAS).

To make the list of large science museums in the survey, the facility needed a budget of at least $10 million annually and at least 200,000 visitors. The study showed none of the facilities included the word "agriculture" in an exhibit title or description. However, Stofer categorized 45% of the 316 exhibits as at least "probably" agriculture-related, based on exhibit titles and descriptions.

Stofer said she'll use this information to plant a seed with educators and museum officials to integrate agriculture into how they teach about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). If they integrate agricultural sciences into the educational programs, it’s called Ag-STEM, Stofer added.

"Museums are fundamental places for the public to support efforts in public education," said Stofer, who specializes in Ag-STEM education. "Yet, many science museums do not explicitly highlight Ag-STEM connections through exhibits."

Museum staff would not have to put in much effort to support Ag-STEM efforts, Stofer said.

Stofer wants to help teach the public that agriculture is a science. Researchers in agriculture and environmental fields use science to solve global issues, including hunger, disease and water conservation. In fact, in her study, Stofer pointed out that scientists and other experts must find ways to feed 9 billion people globally by the year 2050.

"This is the crux of the food security challenge facing the world, a challenge that crosses applied fields like agriculture as well as underlying basic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math," Stofer said.

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From much of the 20th century, agricultural education was separated from science and math — and to some extent from technology and engineering — in secondary schools in the U.S. Agricultural education was considered a pathway to a vocational career after high school graduation, Stofer said. STEM classes were considered college preparatory courses.

This separation persists even in 2015, and could be one reason for the scarcity of STEM-skilled, particularly Ag-STEM-skilled employees, in the American workforce, she said.

However, Stofer also pointed out that most people spend 95% of their life outside a formal school context. That’s all the more reason to help museums incorporate agriculture into their exhibits and educational programs, she said.

Rebranding science museum exhibits with agriculture-related words, like "plant diseases" or "nutrition" would help, Stofer said. For now, though, she’s just interested in just getting teachers and museum curators to inculcate agricultural concepts into the museum experience.

"We’ve got all this information about science; we’re just not contextualizing it around agriculture, but we could," Stofer said.

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