Exploration Kits Expand Ag in the Classroom

The Champaign County Farm Bureau Foundation works to keep our children grounded in agriculture through the Champaign County Ag in the Classroom(AITC) program. A global pandemic didn’t s

top AITC Director Sarah Kaper. In fact, it prompted a bit of innovation and helped to develop extensive new partnerships.

Kaper collaborated with the Urbana Park District (UPD) and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District (CCFPD), making Exploration Kits available to elementary students throughout Champaign County. The program concept, piloted by the CCFPD and the UPD in the fall of 2020, was a resounding success with over 900 kits distributed to 4th graders learning remotely in both Champaign and Urbana public schools. These kits contained activities that explored natural resources while providing educators with tools and activities that meet Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  

The positive response from the fall project led to another collaborative effort, this time including Champaign County Ag in the Classroom. The second round of kits was an opportunity to incorporate agriculture into the activities and information going home to students.  

The spring 2021 Exploration Kits included five to six activities aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core. The topics helped students answer the question: “How and why is the Earth constantly changing?”  The lessons included: Landforms around Illinois; Slow Changes and Fast Changes of the Earth – Weathering; The Power of Wind and Water – Erosion; The Water Cycle – How does it work?; and Illinois State Map Activity – Finding Farmland, Urban Areas, State Parks, and Waterways.

Many public elementary schools in Champaign County participated in the expanded project in the spring. With over 1,500 kits requested, one of the biggest challenges of a project like this was taking care that all materials distributed to students, whether in-person or remote, were available and accessible. The kits included a learning guide, various materials to complete hands-on projects, and a string backpack displaying the logos of the CCFB Foundation, The Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, The Champaign County Forest Preserve, and the Urbana Park

District. Thanks to funds from a Community Foundation of East Central Illinois grant and additional contributions from the Champaign County Farm Bureau Foundation and the Champaign County Forest Preserve, all teachers who requested kits for their students received them.

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of education. To adapt to these constant changes, representatives from each organization worked together to make the Exploration Kits a reality. Kaper says, “We chose one grade level and one foundational standard to cover and began writing curriculum, planning hands-on activities, and putting together a list of items to order. We planned each activity so that a student could read and complete the tasks with little or no help from an adult. We included all materials for each activity so that all students could accomplish the tasks and have a better understanding of how the world around them changes.” So that families could be involved in the learning process if they chose, printed materials were translated into Spanish and French. Volunteers assembled the kits over two weeks and distributed them to second-grade classrooms in Champaign, Urbana, Rantoul, Ludlow, Fisher, Prairieview – Ogden Schools, and many other schools in the area. 

Sarah Kaper is very enthusiastic about this program and says it fits the mission of Champaign County Ag in the Classroom perfectly. “We are always trying to find ways to educate kids and parents too! We put our spin on these kits while working in a collaborative environment. The organizations involved all care about the outdoors, nature, and conservation, and these kits are a great way to help spread knowledge about the importance of agriculture and the environment!”

While there are no definite plans for more Exploration Kits, the organizations will wait to see what schools will do in the fall. “We do hope to work together with these partners for our programming for the upcoming school year,” Kaper says.

The Champaign County Agriculture in the Classroom program works to keep students Grounded in Agriculture through hands-on lessons and classroom presentation. For more information, contact Ag in the Classroom Director Sarah Kaper.