STEM Learning on a Farm

You’ve probably heard the term “STEM” tossed around lately, especially if you’re involved in education or have school-aged children. In this post, we’ll explore what STEM careers are and why it’s important for middle and high school students to be exposed to them. We’ll also walk through several STEM Career Day events hosted by Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center’s education team, sharing how and why you can find STEM in agriculture and conservation!

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The State of Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) defines STEM literacy as “the ability to identify, apply and integrate concepts from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to understand complex problems and to innovate to solve them. STEM literacy is achieved when a student is able to apply his or her understanding of how the world works within and across the four interrelated STEM disciplines to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions of their local and global community.” 

Why are STEM Career Days important?

Michelle Thomassian,Career Access Manager with Highline Public Schools, shared with us the importance of STEM Career Days for students and how vital it is to visit organizations (like a farm!) that might not initially come to mind when thinking of STEM roles. She says, “75% of careers require credentials or secondary education,” – it is a goal of STEM Career Days to identify pathways of interest for students through the exposure to the array of careers within the job spectrum in order to understand that there is not one linear pathway.

With this in mind, the Oxbow Education team co-developed and co-delivered two STEM career days with two Washington State schools⁠—Chinook Middle School and Mount Rainier High School. Oxbow’s educators created a hands-on field experience that explored avenues to leadership, including possible careers in conservation and sustainable agriculture that use critical thinking and other 21st century skills every day. The students also learned about the complexity of a local food system and its context within their bio-region. 

What does the program look like?

Pathways to STEM Careers was offered as two separate field trips to Oxbow where students participated in four stations: The Kids’ Farm; The Native Plant Nursery; A restoration project site; and the farm’s food processing facility. The stations connected the students with several different Oxbow professionals in their respective fields of Agriculture, Ecology, Native Plant restoration, Facilities Management, and Environmental Education. Oxbow’s staff experts provided real-world context to bolster the students’ experience, bringing the programming to life. At each station, students participated in hands-on activities that focused on the perspective of each Oxbow professional’s real experiences and projects, while exploring the linking concept of “stakeholders.” Students were invited to think about the various stakeholders that Oxbow works with through the many facets of the organization, and also reflect on their own roles as stakeholders, taking into consideration those who don’t have a voice in environmental or social issues. Students were guided through the stations by an Oxbow Educator, who provided linking and guiding questions as they visited experts in their domain.

Students inspect plants for pestsStudents remove invasive blackberry

Students transplant douglas fir seedlingsStudents transplant douglas fir seedlings

Mt. Rainier 10th graders in and around Oxbow’s Native Plant Nursery. Top left: Students look for insect pests and identify their findings; Top right: students remove invasive blackberry; Bottom: Students transplant Douglas fir seedlings

Equity in STEM Education. Oxbow Educators are stakeholders in the education of future generations of leaders and land stewards. They strive to share their passion for environmental studies and farm-based education through the STEM careers offered, with the goal to spark students’ interest and expose them to more diversity of opinions, backgrounds, perspectives, and people. Oxbow wants as many voices speaking on behalf of the environment as possible, and is striving to create equity in the workplace. Through the Pathways to STEM programming, Oxbow hopes to communicate opportunities in Environmental Careers in culturally responsive ways, especially to audiences historically underrepresented in STEM career fields.

Chinook Middle School 7th graders

Students transplant ferns at OxbowStudents learn about produce storage and washing in Oxbow's processing area.

A student uses the compost sifterStudents learn about compost and decomposition at Oxbow

Chinook Middle School 7th Graders. Top left: students transplant young ferns in the native plant nursery; Top right: students chat with the Production Farm Assistant Manager as he processes overwintered carrots; Bottom left: students operate the “Mista Sifta” compost sifter at the compost bays; Bottom right: Students chat about the process of composting and learn from Oxbow’s Maintenance Assistant about tractor maintenance.

Outcomes of Pathways to STEM Careers: To assess student learning, Oxbow’s educators asked teachers of the participating students to report back on the student experience, highlighting their new interests, takeaways, and learning moments. Oxbow also created a pre- & post-field trip survey to assess students’ environmental literacy and food systems knowledge. The student survey was informed by the National Environmental Literacy Assessment (NELA) [funded by NOAA and Administered by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE)] which utilizes a series of questions that assess students’ Environmental Literacy based on four components: Ecological Knowledge, Environmental Affect, Cognitive Skills, and Environmental Behavior. The pre- and post-field trip survey focused on plant-human relationships and conservation thoughts and actions.

Survey results below are based on a survey given by the district to all 30 students who participated in the field trip:

  • 75% said this career experience helped them better understand their future career interests and plans after high school
  • 79% said this experience helped them think about school in a new way or inspired them to do better in school
  • 100% said Oxbow should offer this field trip again

Student Quotes:

  • “This trip made me want to take biology more seriously because you never know what new things you can learn.”
  • “I saw new ways to learn about your passion and how to work better in school to do what you want in a lab.”
  • “I learned a lot of the farmers did not start out as wanting to do what they do now.”

Feedback from a sub-sample of survey respondents:

  • Career exploration: Students were asked to list careers that have to do with plants. Prior to the field trip, 6 of 8 students listed “farmer”; after the field trip, while the number of careers listed didn’t increase, several included Facilities Management, Ecologist, and Chef – all careers highlighted during the field trip.
  • Understanding of Decomposition: Students were asked “After living things die, they decompose. As a result of this process, nutrients are…” Those who answered incorrectly in the pre-field trip survey changed their answer in the post survey, indicating that after the field trip exposed them to the compost and cycling of nutrients on a farm, they continued to think about decomposition.
  • Pro-environmental behaviors: When asked what actions they take/can take to create a healthier environment, 5 of the 8 students said that they save leftovers and reduce food waste; four shared that they could pick up or recycle plastic.

Contact the education team at if you’d like to arrange for a STEM Career Day for your students!