Emily Howland Elementary School staff gathered on March 15 to experience the power of a learning expedition. Learning centers on a topic chosen to engage student curiosity and passion. The process connects historic, scientific and other disciplinary concepts to specific case studies. Learning feels personal, concrete and relevant. I would like to share an imaginary learning expedition based on the training and field studies provided by an exceptional team of Southern Cayuga teachers and staff on March 15.

Fifth grade students assemble in the library and divide into teams of five. They know that the focused topic is the dairy industry in their community. The first task of each team is to create the questions they want answered by their research and field work. Let’s follow team “Got Milk” through their process.

“Got Milk” creates a list of questions that will guide their research. What does a dairy farm do? How do they make money? Who lives there? Who works there? How does dairy farming help or harm the environment? What equipment do you use? Each team member takes a question to research.

The environmentalist interviews the school’s Future Farmers of America Issues in Agriculture team and reads their portfolio. She attends the Community Science Institute’s “Nutrients in the Watershed, Unusual Weather and Harmful Algal Blooms: A Public Conversation,” taking notes and asking questions from experts representing Great Lakes Research Consortium, the New York Soil and Water Conservation Committee and one of Cornell’s New York state climatologists. Every day she scans The Citizen for stories on the dairy business and environmental impact.

The young man researching farm equipment visits a neighbor and inspects the tractors in the barn. After a ride on the largest tractor that both tills, seeds and fertilizes, he computes how many corn seeds are needed to plant all the fields. His math teacher helps him with the computations. His history and science teacher explain the radical changes in farm equipment since Scipio blacksmith Jethro Wood received two patents, one in 1814 and the other in 1819, for the first commercially successful iron moldboard plow. His “modern” plow was cast iron, made in three parts, so that any broken part could be replaced without purchasing a new plow. They review decades of improvements and efficiencies.

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A bilingual teammate visits the Workers’ Center of Central New York in Syracuse after learning about the organization from its website and reading "Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State." He interviews two local migrant workers after a Spanish Mass in his local parish. His English teacher helps him organize the material and create interesting profiles.

The fourth and fifth “Got Milk” team members identify local dairy farmers using the internet and the Cornell Dairy Center of Excellence’s website. They learn about salmonella dublin and what dairy farmers need to know as this disease emerges on Northeast dairy farms. “Got Milk” celebrates the information found at nationaldairyfarm.com: “Consumers today are more interested than ever before in their food: how it’s produced, its safety and wholesomeness, who is producing it, how animals are treated and the impact on our planet. The National Dairy FARM Program provides them assurances that U.S. dairy farmers are doing what’s right.”

All teams share their findings and prepare for field research — a visit to two local dairy farms, Fessenden Dairy in King Ferry and Sunnyside Farm in Scipio Center. They wear boots and are prepared to wander through fields, barns and other mucky places. The have clipboards with list of questions for owners and their staff.

After field research, teams prepare a culminating event — a reader’s theater presentation. Like all good theater, the team had to create believable characters (farmer, migrant worker, researcher, environmentalist, farm equipment salesman) and work their narrative around a compelling theme — working with local farms to save the planet. Their play lasted 15 minutes and was received with standing ovations from fellow students and guests.

Expeditionary learning is invigorating and promotes an engagement that often results in future independent learning or service work. Imagine this topic presented in a classroom — sitting at a desk while you take notes from PowerPoint lectures and independent reading. Slide pictures of cows are nice, but they are no substitute for the view from the Sunnyside Farm balcony of cows entering the automated milking area or the smell of Tender Loving Compost in the making at Fessenden Farm. When students animate the questions, personalize the research and move from the classroom into the community, learning ignites.

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Elaine Meyers, of King Ferry, is a member of the boards of the King Ferry Food Pantry, ABC Cayuga and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, and a member of the Southern Cayuga Garden Club. She coordinates a literacy support program at Southern Cayuga Central School.