Agronomy faculty and staff, at Iowa State University, have created a virtual field trip that lets students visit an Iowa family farm without leaving their computers.
The virtual trip was created for a course offered in the master of science in agronomy distance education program.
Associate Prof. Mary Wiedenhoeft developed and teaches the course. It shows students how to evaluate farming systems and helps them sharpen their critical thinking and problem-solving skills by creating a farm management plan.
"In an on-campus course, we would take students on a field trip to visit a farm family," Wiedenhoeft says. "We had to do something different for our distance learning program. So, we decided the best way for students to have an experience similar to a real field trip would be a virtual trip on CD-ROM."
An Iowa family was asked to share their farm's information for the project. Paul and Lora Koch, Cedar Falls, farm 800 acres of corn and soybeans on rented land. They also custom feed pigs, in two nursery buildings. They have three children, ages 13 to 6. Paul works full-time designing houses for a local lumber yard. Lora handles the books and the marketing for the farm operation.
A profile of the farm was created for the virtual field trip. Weather data, community information, marketing plans, topography maps, soils information, panoramic views of the farm and many other pieces of data are included. Paul and Lora were interviewed based on questions students submitted. Video clips of the interviews are included on the computer disk.
Why were they willing to open their lives and farming operation to such scrutiny?
"We realize we are not experts, in all areas of farming. We were looking for ways to become more efficient and make appropriate changes to increase our profitability," Lora says.
Paul agrees. "Farmers don't always have the time to research their next step. This project gave us the chance to have students look at our operation, research our options and come back to us with good suggestions," he says. "Often, their suggestions matched what we thought, but it was nice to have that confirmation."
The first version of the virtual field trip was used last spring. It was updated this spring, with Paul and Lora answering new questions from current students. Wiedenhoeft plans to work with the Kochs a total of four years, so students have two full crop rotations worth of information to study.
She also hopes to begin collecting information from a second farm this fall. Wiedenhoeft and her colleagues earned an award of excellence from the Agronomy Society of America for the project.