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Carroll has nation's first agricultural STEM lab

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Carroll County was first in the nation to teach agriculture in high school. Today, it is one of the few counties in the U.S. to have working school farms associated with the high school. Now, it has a state-of-the art lab dedicated to studying agriculture.

By Shaina Stockton

HILLSVILLE — Just in time for the fall semester, Carroll County High School opened the doors to its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Lab for agriculture — the first in the nation of its kind — on Aug. 6.

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Carroll County has deep roots in the field of agriculture, with farm production and agriculture providing the largest economic sector. According to a news release from the county, this project has been one of the many agricultural efforts supported by the Carroll County Board of Supervisors.

In 2008, the supervisors set a goal to assist the school system with better preparation for high school and post-secondary education success, the release said. In 2010, the board refined the goal to include a STEM lab for agriculture.

The board financed the project through USDA Rural Development with a $500,000 investment in agriculture, education and economic development.

One of the plans involving the lab is to teach students scientific protocols that will assist local producers in meeting higher food safety levels, while providing lab services that will enhance their necessary documentation. While students solve real-life problems in the lab, their studies will provide a new scientific base for further education in many other disciplines.

On Aug. 5, the Carroll Industrial Development Authority (IDA) toured the STEM lab, along with several other new developments in the county. At the high school, agriculture instructor Randy Webb was waiting to show the group around the facility.

Above a downstairs classroom was the lab, set up for the fall semester and fully equipped with state-of-the-art technology. A smart board and two screens were linked up with the electronic microscopes at each station. Spigots are also provided at each station, with natural gas from the county’s new line.

“We are probably as well suited here as the chemistry lab at Virginia Tech,” said Webb.

He expects a total of 60 students per semester — three classes of 20 students per day.

Due to the sophisticated tools that will be at their disposal, students will be able to study agriculture at advanced levels. As an example, Webb noted that students will be able to work with the suspended DNA of plants and livestock.

In addition to providing education, the lab will also allow the schools to provide help for the community. “We can provide the data we find to our local farmers… this could be a support system for [local] operations,” Webb said. He held up a mobile device, and explained that these will allow students to go out to farms to practice analyzing crops and other subjects.

The lab also provides enough resources to allow students to play with genetic alterations of plants. “They could create genetically altered plants… like a drought-resistant cabbage, for example,” Webb said. “Technology and discovery are only limited by our imaginations.

To show how the lab will be integrated even further with the high school curriculum, Webb introduced the IDA to Richard Slate Jr., a teacher at the high school who will be teaching a new technology based curriculum this year.

“We are working with robotics this semester… we are hoping to compete on a national level,” Slate said. He brought out a robot as an example — a group project that was put together by previous students.

In addition, Slate’s class will work with elements of electronics, construction and computer programming. He showed the IDA some of the tools they would be using this year, including a laser cutter — used in construction to cut out small-scale models of larger projects — and a 3D printer.

Slate added that the students taking his class have become more diverse. “Half the class this semester is female,” he said.

Even if they aren’t interested in pursuing a career in technology, Slate explained that the projects that are tackled in his class will teach problem-solving skills that students can use in many other areas.

Barry Hicks, the IDA’s new chair, commented that this was an advantage, because so many students are indecisive about what they want to do after they finish high school.

“Being able to work with Randy across the hall will be very nice. I think we can collaborate a lot,” Slate said.

As a gestures of thanks to the IDA, Webb presented Hicks with an Honorary Chapter Future Farmers of America (FFA) Degree plaque. “If it wasn’t for the support and insight from [the IDA], this would never have happened,” he said. “I just regret that Richard [Slate Sr.] couldn’t be here today.”

Richard Slate Sr. was the former chair of the IDA, who passed away on July 12.

Carroll County was first in the nation to teach agriculture in high school through the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. Today, it is one of the few counties in the state and the nation to have working school farms associated with the high school.

The county is also home to the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market, which markets more than $30 million in local crops each year.

“With the combination of the local assets, students will be able to learn about, identify and solve many real life problems in agriculture and the community,” said the news release.

Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and USDA Rural Development assisted in the development of the STEM lab.