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Teacher, Volunteer Earn Statewide Awards For Connecting Kids With Agriculture

John and Bridget
Volunteer of the Year John Olson of McLean, left, is congratulated by McLean County Ag in the Classroom Coordinator Bridget Caldwell.

Teacher Katie Buckley needed to show her students in LeRoy the many real-world applications of the STEM concepts they were learning about. That made agriculture a no-brainer.

Living in a small, rural community between Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana, LeRoy students were already surrounded by agriculture. So Buckley, who grew up on a farm herself, started using ag-themed STEM lessons to create opportunities for problem-solving and project-based learning for her students.

Katie with administrators
Credit Courtesy
From left, LeRoy Superintendent Gary Tipsord, Bridget Caldwell from McLean County Ag in the Classroom, teacher Katie Buckley, and LeRoy Jr/Sr High Principal Jeff Baughman.

Now, Buckley’s efforts have earned her Illinois Ag In The Classroom of the Year honors for 2020. She and other statewide honorees—including Volunteer of the Year John Olson from McLean—will be honored next month at the Illinois Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in Chicago.

“It meant a lot. Not just for me, but for my students too,” Buckley said.

Thanks to grant funding, Buckley’s students have been able to study how drones are used—including in agriculture—and then learn how to fly them.

They’ve also learned how to solve problems. For a project about soil science, Buckley’s school already had soil samples from around 20 different states. But her students wanted to get samples from even more states. They had to figure out a safe, lightweight way to ship dirt. (Hint: Try PVC pipes.) And they got help from Buckley navigating the legal challenges of shipping dirt in from Hawaii.

“I’m amazed at her creativity plus all of the technology she uses and how she connects it to agriculture,” said Bridget Caldwell, McLean County Ag in the Classroom coordinator.

Projected global population growth means there will be jobs in agriculture, Buckley said.

“There’s gonna be a growing need for more people in ag, and not necessarily just farming,” said Buckley, who is a three-time Illinois State University graduate. “It’s going to be important for them to understand that roles are going to change, and the need for people is going to increase.”

Buckley’s farm background helps, but she’s also gone out of her way to bolster her teaching credentials. Her bachelor’s degree is in special education, her master’s is in school social work, and she earned an endorsement in computer science.

“I made myself valuable because I can do a lot of different things,” Buckley said.

McLean County is also home to another statewide Ag in the Classroom honoree. John Olson, who farms corn and beans near McLean, was named the Volunteer of the Year for 2020.

Olson has been an ag advocate for decades. He started organizing grade school farm tours back in the 1980s. He was also involved with the development of the ag exhibit at the Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, and the interactive Food and Farm Fun Zone at the McLean County Fair.

Olson takes his grandkids to the museum and enjoys seeing kids interacting with the exhibit.

“There’s a lot of technology things that kids are picking up—the concepts. I think it’s really cool,” Olson said. “You see the excitement in their face when something happens. The cause and effect.”

Olson has been keenly aware of the disconnect between people and their food since he was a child, growing up on his family’s farm. His family had cattle, and as a first-grader he read about kids in Chicago who "thought chocolate milk came from chocolate cows."

Today, most people are two or three generations removed from the farm, Olson said. Food comes from a grocery store—and sometimes even that’s delivered to your doorstep.

“It’s important to get people reconnected to where their food and fiber comes from,” Olson said.

Olson has also served on the McLean County Farm Bureau and County Fair boards.

“We appreciate all of the hard work and creativity John has contributed over the years,” said Caldwell. “He helped us put a lot of ideas into action and built some really neat exhibits to bring learning about agriculture to life.”

Agriculture in the Classroom is a nationwide a network of state and local programs that seeks to improve agricultural literacy — awareness, knowledge, and appreciation — among teachers and their students. Illinois Ag in the Classroom is a program of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.