June 18, 2012
For final lab projects, students collaborate with Cornell Cooperative Extension to help local farms
In Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s AP Biology class, Donna McGovern’s students recently got a real-life application for their school-work. This year’s 15 advanced placement biology students collaborated over the last few weeks with the Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CUCE) to help local farmers identify problems with their crop growth. The CUCE is a program funded by Cornell University that connects educators and their research to local communities that can benefit from their experience and data.
The BKW and CUCE collaboration was a first for McGovern and CUCE Educator Aaron Gabriel. McGovern had been looking for a research project for her student’s final lab report, and Gabriel wanted answers to a concern in local farms that he did not have the funding or time to address.
"Like many programs funded by educational institutions, the CUCE has been hit by budgetary issues," Gabriel said. "For example, I used to monitor and collect data for only one county, and now I’m assigned to five. Farmers rely on our research, so I wanted to find a creative way to get the information we needed."
Gabriel acted as a liaison between the BKW class and two local farms in Knox – Wilson Farm and Gaige Farm. He coordinated with the farmers and McGovern so the students could visit the farms and do observations and collect data for the project.
The goal of the project was to determine why farmers are planting 34,000 corn seeds per acre, and only growing about 26,000 survive. Gabriel says this type of loss equals about $50 per acre, a loss that if avoided, could make a noteworthy difference in costs to local farmers. Using a specified sampling procedure, the students determined how many corn plants were missing and dug up each missing plant to figure out why it didn't grow. With over a dozen reasons for a missing plant, from one of several bugs, to disease, to machinery malfunction, it took a careful eye and good reasoning to determine what happened.
"The ability of the students was very impressive," said Gabriel. "They were finding little brown seed corn maggot pupae, half the size of a rice grain in the soil where a corn seed was supposed to be growing. That is a tough thing to pick out in a little pile of soil."
After four sessions out in the field collecting information, the students summarized and graphed the data. The last step was writing the research report. The results will be used in CUCE newsletters and workshops to educate farmers in the region about improving their crop yields.
The students contributed to a major find and discovered that the seed corn maggot was a source of damage to the corn crops, an issue that was previously thought to be under control. With this new information, local farmers can now explore new options to try and alleviate this issue.