High school students take agricultural science to a new level


For the Capital Press

TILLAMOOK, Ore. -- "Going green" has become one of the more important issues of our time, addressing age-old environmental challenges .

Tillamook High School agricultural science students, under the guidance of instructor Max Sherman, have taken to the lab to come up with creative solutions.

Sherman, who grew up on a dairy farm near Canby, Ore., and is in his 10th year at Tillamook High, begins his classes with homework updates and announcements. From there, it's to the lab where the real work begins.

"My goal," Sherman said of his 52-minute class periods, "is to get students in the lab as soon as possible because that's where they really excel."

With the new school year under way, Sherman and his students brainstorm ideas for individual and team projects. By spring, those efforts in the lab and in the field begin to bear fruit.

Among the student projects last year: utilizing whey powder, a byproduct of cheese production, for the production of ethanol; creating fuel pellets from methane-digested pulp; improving water quality of one of the most polluted streams on the Oregon coast; and studying the effects of catastrophic forest fires on hydrologic properties of Mazama ash soils in Southern Oregon forests.

"It's definitely not your traditional ag class," Sherman said. "We've gotten away from the typical test tube lab procedures and utilize industry-standard meters and probes. The accuracy of the results adds credibility to students' research."

While the focus is on "green" projects, Sherman said, the more traditional aspects of his ag classes, such as tractor driving, animal husbandry and soil and crop science, are still an important part of the curriculum. But, clearly, as Sherman said, "It ain't just cows and plows anymore."

In 2008, THS sophomore Hayden Bush went to the first-ever International Sustainable World Energy, Engineering and Environment Olympiad, returning with a bronze medal for creating biofuel from Scotch broom. Bush was among 1,000 high school students from 40 states and from 60 countries.

At the time, Sherman and Bush were a little intimidated by the competitive field. Many of the foreign students, Sherman said, were there with the complete backing of their governments.

"Some of these kids work with the leading researchers from their countries," he said.

However, by the end of the competition, Sherman realized his students could compete and belonged on center stage. This spring four students attended the Olympiad. Sophomores Staci Sherer and Tory Callaway were cited for their efforts in the production of ethanol from whey powder; sophomore Joey Meyer, for making fuel pellets from methane-digested waste.

Of the 65 students enrolled in his agricultural science and technologies classes last year, Sherman said, about a third had an agricultural background having grown up on a farm, worked at the Tillamook County Creamery Association cheese factory or worked on someone else's farm.

Real-life challenges encountered on the farm are often the catalyst for students' projects. That was the case with Bush, Sherman said. His parents, who own a dairy farm, were faced with ever-increasing prices for feed, in particular corn, which was being used more and more in the production of biofuel, forcing them and fellow dairy farmers to pay a higher premium for a shorter supply. Bush looked at Scotch broom, a pesky invasive species in plentiful supply, and wondered why biofuel couldn't be created from it as well, which, in turn, led to his classroom project.

This October, 12 THS students and eight projects are headed to the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, a significant increase over last year and the year before.

"A big part of the students' success is they're starting to be recognized by industry experts," Sherman said, "with some projects actually influencing policy making."

In particular, he said, the U.S. Forest Service has taken note of students' efforts on the effects of catastrophic forest fires and management of old-growth forests.

Meanwhile, Bush's Scotch broom biofuel production experiment has run into a snag. The liquid produced has a tendency to gel, and Bush and Sherman await test results from Oregon State University to understand why -- just one more challenge awaiting a solution in the ag science lab at Tillamook High.


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