DESIGN CHALLENGE: iFarm (1 of 2)

8 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


Students will be able to 1) describe how agricultural technologies have modified the physical environment over time and 2) develop solutions to environment problems created by agricultural technology.

Big Idea

Agricultural technology has evolved to meet needs of the food industry that often negatively impact the environment. How might we redesign agricultural technologies to reduce their negative impacts?

FRAME: Agriculture and technology

How do our food choices help or hurt the planet?  This is the essential question of this unit that students have attempted to answer through an exploration of carbon dioxide emissions, energy use, food label redesigns, neighborhood food surveys, modern agriculture, soil, and a nitrogen DESIGN LAB.  As this unit builds towards the CAPSTONE, students move towards designing solutions to the environmental problems created by food choices.  In the previous DESIGN LAB, students grappled with developing prototype models of healthy nitrogen cycles; most solutions were some version of aquaponics.  In this lab, students will consider how technology might play a role in maintaining healthy ecosystems interactions, such as those required by a functional nitrogen cycle. 

In the "iFarm" lesson sequence students continue the engineering design thinking approach of the DESIGN LAB, but with an increasingly expanded scope.  The lens for this series of lesson is technology.  How has agricultural technology changed over time to meet the needs of the human population?  What have been the costs and benefits of new technology?  How might we design agricultural technology in the future to reduce negative impact on ecosystems?  In the previous DESIGN CHALLENGE, students redesigned food labels in an attempt to challenge consumer behavior.  Now students will attempt to redesign agricultural technology in an attempt to challenge prevailing behaviors of food producers.  For the CAPSTONE, students will go even further as they grapple with how to impact the food system.

This first lesson is an overview of this history of agricultural technology and an opportunity to make meaning of this history through an engineering design thinking lens.  Students reflect on their ideas about the types of technology that farmers use. Students then explore the green revolution, the history of agricultural technology, and current cutting edge technologies used in agricultural practices.  Finally, students begin to develop presentations about agricultural technology. By the end of this lesson, successful students should be able to identify a number of current technologies used by farmers, as well as explain in broad terms how technology has changed over time.  Students will pay special attention to the needs that technologies meet as well as the problems that technologies cause.  Students will use this foundation for design presentations during the next lesson.

By the end of this DESIGN CHALLENGE, successful students will have met these objectives:

  1. describe how agricultural technologies have modified the physical environment over time
  2. develop solutions to environment problems created by agricultural technology.
  3. present an agricultural technology to the class 
  4. develop an agricultural technology solution that meets the needs of the "other 90%"

RESOURCES NOTE: The attached prototype activity guide contains a skeleton structure for the learning experiences in these lessons. The reading passages in particular will likely need to be modified to meet the skills and needs of students.

ATTRIBUTION NOTE: This lesson was modified from ideas in the PBS developed lesson of the same name.

ENGAGE: There's an app for that

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students explore their ideas about the kinds of technology used in modern farming through an engineering design thinking framework.  What are the challenges that modern farmers face?  How can technologies meet these needs?  The teacher formatively assesses students' baseline knowledge knowledge of agricultural technology and addresses misconceptions.  Do students understand that technology does not have to be digital?  Do students understand that technologies that solve a problem in the farm, may create problems in the field?  By the end of this ENGAGE activity, students will have surfaced a number of technologies that farmers use to meet challenges.  Many students will be surprised at the number of ideas generated and may want to use technologies discussed for the EXPLAIN activity.

What will students do?

First, the whole class "sings" a revised version of a familiar song.  (This is also described in the prototype activity guide.)

Would the Old McDonald that we know so well from the popular nursery rhyme have used an iPhone or iPad on his farm today? If so, what for? Ray-Lin Dairy, a progressive California Dairy Farm blog, suggest that the answer is yes. Here is how the group rewrote the classic Old McDonald song:

Old McDonald had a Droid, e-i-e-i-o
And on that Droid he had farm tools, e-i-e-i-o
Cow info here, crops info there
Here a cow, here a crop, everywhere a tech tool
Old McDonald had a Droid, e-i-e-i-o

What do you think? ​What types of tech tools do you think would be useful to a farmer today? What are the environmental or production challenges facing farmers today? What technology-driven innovations help to meet these challenges? (Pro-tip: ​use the engineering design thinking framework to ideate with your group!)

Next, students work in groups to develop a list of technologies that they think farmers use. (A few student ideas are in the prototype activity guide.) Student groups then share these ideas as a whole class.  

What will the teacher do?

The teacher supports groups in developing ideas in small groups and during whole group discussion.  Some key guiding questions to ask include: 

  • What challenges do you think farmers face?  
  • What kinds of apps do you think would be useful?  
  • What kinds of farming tools do you know?  
  • Does technology have to be digital?  
  • Does this technology create problems?

EXPLORE: The Green Revolution

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

What is the role of technology in agriculture?  What is high-tech farming? Why do farmers use one technology and not another?  What are the costs and benefits of each technology used? Student build on the ideas developed during the ENGAGE activity to answer these questions.  As with the ENGAGE activity, students attempt to answer these questions using an engineering design thinking framework.  To support this work, students will use information from a provided text describing the Green Revolution as well as a video presentation produced by PBS.  By the end of this activity students should be able to define the "Green Revolution" and describe at least one influence that technology has had on agriculture and food production.

What will students do?

First, students make meaning of a text passage that describes the Green Revolution and changes in agricultural technology.  Next, students engage with a short presentation from PBS that demonstrates some current technologies used in agriculture today.  The prototype activity guide contains sample reading passages to be used.  

Here is the link to "iFarm" clip from PBS.  It is available with subtitles and in English and Spanish.

Finally, when students  have engage with both resources, they will share out ideas in small groups and as a whole class.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher supports students' synthesis of resources.  The key teacher move here is to challenge students to think critically about information presented.  Students are prone to believe in the idea of "utopia by technology."  What are the problems that result from technology solutions?  Is the Green Revolution good for everybody?  What are some of the disadvantages of a world in which apps influence farming?  Should our farms look like Silicon Valley?  What are the impacts of water irrigation in California's Central Valley?

EXPLAIN: Seeds to trees

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

How have inventors addressed agricultural challenges throughout history with technological innovation? What agricultural innovations are taking place around the world today? Students conduct research to answer these questions in preparation for public presentation of ideas.  As with the previous DESIGN CHALLENGE presentation, students' larger purpose in this section is to communicate their ideas about agricultural technology using an engineering design thinking framework. By the end of this activity, students will identify a topic to research and collaboratively develop a framework for presenting. 

What will students do?

Students will work in groups and focus on either the "past" or the "present." Technology before the Green Revolution is considered to be the past.  Each group will investigate technological innovations that have solved agricultural problems through research.  Possible topics include:

  • insects
  • drought
  • disease
  • soil
  • increased demand for crops
  • weather

To support this research, all students receive a link through Edmodo to a blendspace of recommended resources. Blendspace is a essential a web platform that allows users to create elegant, tiled visualizations of curated resources.  Here is another use of this resource in this course.  And here is the blendspace resource page for this lesson:

Student groups will have approximately TWO MINUTES to present ideas.  Presentations should answer the following questions: 

  • What is the context?  
  • What was the need?  
  • What was the solution? 
  • What were the impacts (positive and negative) of this solutions?

Because students will have limited time to work on presentations during the next class, they are explicitly instructed to divide remaining work among members of collaborative groups.  This work will need to be completed before the next class.

What will the teacher do?

This presentation requires students to conduct open-ended research.  Such an activity can cause anxiety. As such, the key teacher move is to frame and scaffold the presentation.  The framework for this presentation is essentially the same one we have used throughout this unit for our IMPACT ASSESSMENT, our food label DESIGN CHALLENGE, our Ag Symposium, and our work with Soil! What is the context? What is the problem?  What is the solution?  What are impacts of this solutions to the environment?  The following diagram was very helpful to provide students with a visual reminder of the basic information to include.

EXIT: One word story

5 minutes

This is a familiar EXIT for students. Each group develops a one word "story" that captures the most important idea from this lesson.  This activity forces students to distill their work into a simple idea. Some students struggle with this activity and disagreements within groups are common.  I like to use this close because it surfaces students' understandings, group dynamics, content interests, and students' takeaways.  It can be very revealing for a teacher to see students highlight some aspects of a lesson that was not intended to be particularly memorable.  These unexpected stories are valuable.  They can help a teacher better meet student needs and interests and also may provide inspiration for future iterations of a lesson.