Teaching ag award

Dawn Alexander, center, receives the National Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture award from Scott Angle, right, director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and Jessica Jansen, director of Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom.

REDMOND, Ore. — Agriculture is an integral part of Dawn Alexander’s fifth grade classroom at Tom McCall Elementary School in Redmond, Ore.

Students learn through a variety of hands-on projects tied to food and farming, such as growing their own salsa garden and exploring the importance of bees for pollinating crops.

“They actually really like it,” Alexander said. “It’s a lot of hands-on, and science. They love science.”

Alexander recently became the first teacher from Oregon to win an Excellence in Teaching Award from National Agriculture in the Classroom, or NAIC, an organization aimed at increasing agricultural literacy from kindergarten through high school.

Eight teachers from across the country, including Alexander, received awards at the NAIC annual conference, which was held June 18-21 in Little Rock, Ark. Alexander was nominated by Jessica Jansen, executive director of Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom — a state arm of the national program.

“Dawn is the epitome of an educator dedicated to teaching her students the importance of agriculture throughout all subjects in her classroom,” Jansen said. “Just one look in her classroom, and it’s apparent that agriculture is at the core of everything she does.”

Alexander has been teaching for 34 years. She grew up on cattle ranches in Nevada and Southern California, where her father worked as a herdsman and beef superintendent.

It was her childhood, Alexander said, that made her want to become an agriculture teacher. She graduated from the University of Nevada-Reno in 1983 with a degree in agriculture education, looking to find a full-time job teaching in high school.

But as Alexander quickly found, positions at the time were scarce and most programs already had established agriculture teachers. Instead, she began substitute teaching at elementary schools in Washoe County, Nev., and soon realized younger kids could use lessons in agriculture, too.

“A lot of them don’t know where our food and fiber comes from,” Alexander said.

For the last two years, Alexander has taken her fifth-graders at Tom McCall Elementary to work with the Redmond Garden Club, growing their own tomatoes and herbs. That expanded last year to a project centered on pollinators, called “Please the Bees.”

For the project, students were asked to picked a crop that relies on bees for pollination. They then identified growing regions, types of pollinators and challenges facing bees. The kids also grew bee-friendly flowers.

“I’m pretty sure they realized how important (bees) are,” Alexander said. “I hope that’s what they’re doing now, is spreading the word.”

Finally, the students used Spheros — small robots programmed through an app — to maneuver around their bee posters while presenting their findings. Alexander said the goal was to “discuss how farmers and computer scientists use technology and information to change and improve how they grow and cultivate food.”

Alexander said she was “very honored, pleased and happy” to receive the NAIC award, and thanked the community for their support of her curriculum.

“We’ve got a ton of great support in Redmond and the community,” she said.

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