Using problem-based learning to teach Ag-STEM and inspire the next generation of food animal scientists 

A fifth grader today will graduate from college in 2030. This is around the time that at least 4 private companies as well as NASA, Roscosmos, and the China National Space Administration plan to land the first humans on Mars. Elementary and middle school students today will see some of the most profound changes in food production since the invention of agriculture. Over the course of their careers, there will almost certainly be permanent colonies of humans living on other planets. They will see the global human population begin to reach its predicted plateau of approximately 11 billion people. They will also see the greatest overall increase in global wealth and standards of living. All of these changes pose tremendous challenges for food production and will require new and innovative solutions. Solutions that many of us alive today could never imagine, but if the US is going to meet these challenges we need to inspire future food producers and scientists so they are prepared to lead.

USDA-NIFA 2019-68010-29117

#NuggetsOnMars2019 In Action

Applied Production

In June the 4 members of the 2019 cohort spent 4-5 days working with members of their local county Farm Bureaus and local poultry producers in Duplin, Randolph, and Surry counties to see what poultry production looks like here on Earth. As the industry looks different across the state, this gave the teachers the opportunity to see the different aspects of the production system, from the feed mill to processing, broiler production, and layer production.


STEM, Agriculture, and Food Policy

In July the 2019 cohort traveled to Washington, D.C. where they got to meet with NASA, NIFA, the American Farm Bureau, ASBMB, the Department of Education, as well as Representatives Rouzer (NC 7th), Foxx (NC 5th), and Walker (NC 6th), and Senators Burr and Tillis. These meetings gave them an appreciation for all that goes into establishing the federal policies that shape science, education, and food in the United States.


Poultry STEM

After their trip to Washington, D.C. our four teachers spent two days at NC State, visiting the Prestage Department of Poultry Science where they learned about the STEM concepts that poultry production is based on. They learned about the basics of poultry anatomy, physiology, and reproduction. They also visited the NC State Kitchen Study to learn about food safety. Finally, the teachers spent a day working in a research lab, where they set up their own experiments to see how different aspects of the environmental conditions of space travel and Mars affects animal cells.


Problem-Based Learning Professional Development Experience

At the end of July the Nuggets On Mars 2019 team spent 4 days in Asheville focused on problem based learning pedagogy, project brainstorming, team building, and fun. The 4 days kicked off with an overview of program assessment and a couple of team building exercises, highlighted by a trip to the Fox-N-Otter Adventure Escapes where the team had to use their different learning styles in collaboration to solve a series of puzzles and defuse the bomb in time.

From there they visited the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center where they learned about plant breeding, selection, stress, and some of the challenges they’ll have to solve if they want to be able to feed their chickens on Mars.

Finally, this action packed week finished off with self-exploration of problem-solving at the Biltmore House and the NC Arboretum, lesson/unit planning, an immersive hands-on Mars focused STEM workshop at the Asheville Museum of Science, and then capped off with a private star gazing session with the Astronomy Club of Asheville. All in all the teachers have been introduced to all the different aspects and challenges associated with producing nuggets on Mars. Stay tuned to see how these creative and dedicated educators turn their summer experience into lesson plans that will generate the future STEM leaders who will help feed this world and others.

Meet the 2019-2020 Cohort


Kathy Brintle
6th Grade Science & Social Studies
Mount Airy Middle School


Rebecca Brown
6th & 7th Grade Science & Social Studies
Chinqupin Elementary


Sarah Moore
6th – 12th Grade Science
Uwharrie Ridge Six-Twelve


Tanya Novakowski
6th grade Science & Math
Rose Hill-Magnolia Elementary

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