Several classes tramped up and down the ramp to the colorful lab in a 42-foot long converted camper over the two days it sat in the lot at Ridgely.
On Thursday, about thirty of Lee Kimball’s sixth graders chatted restlessly as they waited their turn in the lab. When Kimball opened the doors for them, the students rushed in and positioned themselves at work stations lined up on both sides of the mobile unit’s long aisle.
Kimball warned them not to touch any of the plates of milk or food dyes laid out on the counter of their stations until they received instructions from Amy Gladfelter, the science and agriculture teacher who runs the lab.
On this day, Gladfelter’s lesson involved milk products.
Milk comes from? She asked.
“Cows,” the students answered in unison.
So that was easy, but could they tell if the cows on stacks of cards in front of them were beef, dairy or dual-use cows?
“Maybe if they’re (meat cows, they’re) bigger than others, like this one has more meat,” one student said.The mobile agriculture science lab made its debut at county schools in 1998. It was initially funded through a partnership between the school district and county and state agencies. Now, the school takes care of the annual cost of running it. Dianne Young, project supervisor, says it is the only one of its kind in the state that’s free to individual schools.
“Maryland Agriculture has a lab they send out to schools but schools have to pay for that lab or get a grant for it,” she said. “There’s no charge for us to come out.”
Gladfelter has visited 95 percent of the county’s middle schools over the years. She spends about two weeks at each, rotating the classes so the students come at least twice to the lab.
As part of this visit, the students used dye and fat-free, 2 percent and whole milks, in an experiment on fat content. Kimball says these lab classes coincide with the student’s regular science lessons.
“The pre-lab activity had them looking at the nutrition labels of the various products and comparing not only the fat content but nutrition values as well,” Kimball said.
On Thursday the students made butter, a lesson designed to connect them to agricultural products they use at home. They took turns shaking small containers of cream and marveled at how the cream thickened and turned yellow. After about five minutes of shaking, it was time for a taste test.
“I don’t like the look of it but I like the taste,” one student said. “It doesn’t look like the butter in my refrigerator.”
Another said he liked it, but “we eat margarine at home.”
Ridgley’s science teachers say students get more excited about the subject when they are engaged in hands-on projects. As they vigorously continued to shake their containers of cream in their butter-making process, several students agreed.
“I think this is really interesting because I’ve never learned this,” said Anna Boland. “We were making plastic out of corn and glue out of milk.”
“You would never realize the other things you could do with corn and milk,” said Apurva Chaturzedi. “It’s just a new experience.”
Young says the lab not only teaches students about the diversity of Maryland’s largest commercial industry, agriculture, but helps them connect what they learn in class with the real world.
Young says the mobile lab program has been such a success that they plan to expand next year to visit some elementary schools.