Young students learn practical applications of science at AgriLife center in Uvalde

Contact: Dr. Daniel Leskovar, 830-278-9151, daniel.leskovar@ag.tamu.edu

Dr. Madhumita Joshi, 830-278-9151, madhumita.joshi@ag.tamu.edu

UVALDE – About 40 students from Sacred Heart Catholic School in Uvalde recently got a firsthand look at how scientific knowledge is applied at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center to benefit agricultural producers, consumers and the environment.

“Educational outreach is an important part of our center’s mission,” said Dr. Daniel Leskovar,  director of the Uvalde center and a plant physiologist. “We have students of all ages come to the center to learn about what we do here and how our research benefits area producers and the community.

Students examine seedlings and plants in one of the Uvalde center greenhouses. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Paul Schattenberg)

“It’s especially important for young people to understand about plants and how plants are grown for food, as well as the process from seeds to seedlings to producers growing the plants for the consumer. They also need to understand about plant nutrition and irrigation and the environmental conditions needed for them to grow.”

Leskovar said center research focuses on vegetable crop improvement under stress conditions, cropping systems, stress physiology, irrigation strategies, genotype adaptation and high-throughput phenotyping for crop improvement and diversity.

Other programs include the development of cultivars for organic vegetable farming and hydroponic systems for production of leafy greens.

“We brought students from third to sixth grade to the center so they could get a firsthand look at the science and research being done here,” said Janice Estrada, school principal. “It’s one thing to learn about science in a classroom, but another to get hands-on experience in seeing it applied to benefit people and the environment. Here the students get to see how the research at the center is being used to improve vegetables, fruits and various row crops we grow in this region.”

Dr. Madhumita Joshi, a research associate with Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Uvalde, was the primary tour guide and other center personnel provided instruction during the various tour stops.

The tour began with an introduction to the center followed by visits to the center’s Systems Plant Physiology Lab, Vegetable Genetics and Breeding Lab, Plant Stress and Physiology Lab and Horticulture Lab. Students also toured the center’s two greenhouses, two hoop houses, certified organic field and plots where field research is conducted.

Students wait for their turn to insert a leaf into the LICOR 3100. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Paul Schattenberg)

Shane Sieckenius, a research assistant with AgriLife Research, provided the students with a tour of the Plant Stress and Physiology lab and told them how lab equipment was used to benefit agronomy.

“If you are a farmer in this area, you want to find vegetable and row-crop varieties that are more resistant to heat and insects and can use less water,” he explained. “The equipment we use here helps us determine which varieties are best for the semi-arid climate in this region.”

Sieckenius then let each of the students take a plant leaf and run it through a LICOR 3100 scanner that automatically measures the entire leaf area.

“The greater the leaf area, the better the possibility of the plant performing well,” he said. “This is just one of the factors we look at in determining what existing plant varieties may work best and how we might create new and better varieties.”

Gustavo Torres, a fifth-grade science teacher at the school, accompanied the students on the tour.

“I think it’s important for the students to see how textbook learning can be used in real life and to give them an opportunity to discover some of the career possibilities there are in the sciences,” he said. “It also gives them a chance to see where their food really comes from and learn the importance of research in food production. A lot of these kids have only seen vegetables at the grocery store and not in the field.”

Carly Colvin, a fifth-grader on the tour, said she enjoyed visiting the center’s laboratories and learning how the lab equipment was used.

“I’m interested in science and glad we got a chance to visit the center,” she said. “My mom is a veterinarian, and I want to study science and possibly become a vet myself.”

After touring the labs, the students went outdoors to the greenhouses to learn about some of the research being done on onion, watermelon and bell pepper production, including hydroponic production.

“The students had different levels of understanding, but they were all excited to be here and had lots of good questions,” Joshi said. “Some of the older students asked about photosynthesis and what we did with soil sciences. There was also a lot of interest in DNA and genes and the difference between plant and human DNA.”

Students also visited the fields where center scientists conduct research on a variety of vegetables, fruits and row crops. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Paul Schattenberg)

The students also went into the center’s research field where they saw olive trees and the plots where the center’s researchers conduct their field studies.

Parents John and Elizabeth Zamora, whose son John Jr. was a fourth-grader on the tour, said they felt the tour gave their son and the other students a unique experience of how science works.

“The kids really enjoyed the hands-on activities like putting leaves into the scanner, looking through the microscope in the lab and learning about good and bad bacteria,” Elizabeth Zamora said.

John Zamora added the experience was also practical as many of the students have family members who work in agriculture.

“A lot of the kids’ moms and dads are farmers or have something to do with agriculture,” he said. “It’s exciting to see them interested in agriculture because there’s so much of it here in Uvalde. This helps show them just how important agriculture really is.”

Estrada said the tour fit well with the school’s emphasis on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education and providing the students with better understanding of how these STEM subjects can be applied.

“Having hands-on experiences showing how science and other STEM subjects are applied will give these students valuable knowledge they can use in many facets of their lives from college to when they’re out on their own,” she said.

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