The Northern Cass School District is introducing middle school students to agriculture in a new kind of education—Agweek

HUNTER, ND – When the Northern Cass School District Middle School introduced a “studio” system where kids could pursue their interests and passions outside of normal school subjects, Sue McPherson began thinking about something that affects the whole school.

Agriculture.

“We’re in the middle of a corn or soy field this year,” said the Level 6 educator.

The 25-year-old educator – as Northern Cass prefers to call the teacher – has a long-standing interest in farming. She grew up as a farmer’s daughter. While in college, McPherson didn’t get a traditional waitressing job — she had to be available to go home and dig or drive discs or drive trucks, “which I really enjoyed,” she said. Her husband is an air applicator and her sons are involved in various farming activities including farming, seed sales and animal husbandry.

Although the Northern Cass School District includes rural areas and small towns, that doesn’t mean it’s populated by farm kids. McPherson said few of the learners – the term Northern Cass prefers for his students – grow up on farms and she saw an opportunity to open their eyes to where their food comes from and the opportunities in farming, that you may not see.

Open to levels 6, 7 and 8 in Northern Cass, their Farm-to-Fork studio is designed to introduce learners to farming careers while also using their life skills and competencies in a different way build up than they would in a traditional classroom setting.

A white board is covered with lists of occupations in agriculture.
Sue McPherson’s Farm to Fork studio has looked at various careers in farming, gathering information about them and how the agribusiness works.

Trevor Peterson / Agweek

Learners may not realistically see a future in farming, but they may not realize how many other great careers are involved in the industry, McPherson said. Through the studio, children choose farming careers they want to explore and take the reins on how they want to learn about them. Some have chosen to do things like soil science or botany, while another deals with sales at a large livestock and veterinary supply company.

In addition to career and life skills, learners also get a hands-on lesson on where food comes from and how it ends up on their plate.

“Everyone eats,” McPherson said. “There will be more and more people in the world and less and less farmland. So we really need to get behind the science and let these middle schoolers find their own passion, if it’s in farming, and let them go with it.”

A school building with the words "Northern Cass Jaguars" on it in big letters.
Known for innovation, the Northern Cass School District has evolved into a personalized learning model, allowing learners to select middle school “studios” for deeper exploration.

Trevor Peterson / Agweek

Known for innovation, the Northern Cass School District has focused on ‘personalized learning’ in recent years. Personalized learning focuses on allowing ‘learners’ – Northern Cass prefers this term because it has a more active connotation than ‘students’ – to work at their own pace to achieve proficiency on educational standards. Rather than being placed in classes just by age, learners are assigned both “social levels” by years of graduation and “learning levels” by their math and language ability.

A man in an olive green blazer, black shirt and glasses looks at the camera.
Cory Steiner is the superintendent of the Northern Cass School District.

Trevor Peterson / Agweek

Superintendent Cory Steiner said her school was known as “the palace on the prairie.” It is 25 miles northwest of Fargo and serves the communities of Argusville, Arthur, Erie, Grandin, Gardner and Hunter, although 34% of learners from outside the district are enrolled in Northern Cass. He believes that this large number of open enrollments reflects people wanting a great school experience in a small school environment.

The studio concept, Steiner explained, is an attempt to “reset our middle school” and give educators and learners more agency in education. The first attempt to do this failed because it was too top-down, he said, while the current system relies on collaboration and conversations between administrators, educators, learners and parents.

The studios aren’t just electives, they’re a way to immerse yourself in a subject while learning the things schools need to teach, like reading or math, along with life skills, all in a way that feels more natural and engaging . The school believes this empowers learners to be ready for whatever comes next, whether it’s college, careers or the military, and to recognize that the world offers more opportunities than they realized.

“Their future is bigger than where they are now,” he said.

While the students at Northern Cass High School develop their own studios, the middle school educators do much to generate ideas. McPherson said that’s partly because middle schoolers haven’t been exposed to much of the world and “don’t know what they don’t know.” The studio themes were huge, including fantasy football and world cultures.

A student in a Northern Cass football cap leans against a table.  Next to him is a blond teacher in a white, brown and gray checked shirt.
Northern Cass School District’s focus on personalized learning enables educators to find ways to engage learners. Sue McPherson (right) talks to a middle school student at her Farm to Fork studio.

Trevor Peterson / Agweek

McPherson described the process by which learners choose their studios as something akin to speed dating. Educators have a few minutes to sell their studio idea to each learner. Her first studio that year was cursive, and she had a huge group to join her. They ended up getting pen pals, and some learners continued to correspond with them after the end, Steiner said.

Although the cursive course was a success, McPherson feels that she deliberately undercut her Field to Fork studio to keep the number of learners a little smaller. This has allowed it to be more personal and allow for many excursions – sometimes several in the same week.

The studio system is still in its first year, but Steiner said he’s had “exceptionally positive feedback.”

“When you empower learners, they can do some amazing things,” he said.

A girl with glasses and loose hair smiles at the camera.  She's wearing a t-shirt.
Mckenzy Albert, 13, learns about dairy farming at the Northern Cass School District’s Farm to Fork studio. Mckenzy can see herself pursuing a career at a livestock trading company after learning more about careers in farming.

Trevor Peterson / Agweek

Mckenzy Albert, 13, is among the middle school students who chose McPherson’s Farm to Fork studio. The grade 8 student said she just wanted to learn more about farming. Ever since her father worked with cattle, she has focused on dairy products.

Though she grew up in small towns in North Dakota — Horace and now Page — she wasn’t raised on a farm. But agriculture has always interested her and she brings a lot out of the classroom.

“I learned a lot. I didn’t think it would be so much fun,” she said. “It was more interesting than I thought.”

For her, part of the experience was “getting face-to-face with the possibilities.” Learners do not only learn from books or websites. You taste and touch agriculture, meet experts and learn from them.

Two women on the right speak to a class of students on the left.
Sue McPherson, far right, has worked with middle school students at her Farm to Fork studio to identify and communicate with professionals in various farming jobs. Agweek editor Katie Pinke, second from right, spoke to the learners about farm communication.

Trevor Peterson / Agweek

And they don’t just meet the experts – they moderate the meetings. For example, Albert contacted the North Dakota State University dairy manager to organize a field trip for the class.

These types of communication skills and opportunities aren’t just a coincidence of the studios — they’re part of the point, McPherson said. Through these experiences, learners also acquire new vocabulary and new skills that come across more easily in a practical setting than in a traditional classroom setting.

The studios also offer natural engagement as learners lead the way based on their interests.

“I’m excited to see what they come up with,” McPherson said.

Albert’s father works for Leedstone, a Minnesota-based animal health and care company. And now that she’s looked around a bit, she can imagine working there one day.

“I think I would be a good salesman,” she said.

She is thankful for the farming people who work hard to feed the world.

“It’s a blessing,” she said.

Five baby food jars contain Great Northern, Pinto, Pink, Black Turtle and Kidney Beans.  Each glass is labeled with its type.
Sue McPherson’s Farm to Fork studio learns about different types of farming, including types of crops and food.

Trevor Peterson / Agweek

Steiner, who grew up on a farm, agrees.

“It’s what lays the foundation for this beautiful state and amazing people,” he said. “I believe that Ag is what gives us humility and modesty. It has built integrity. And that still makes North Dakota a little-known place and allows us to maintain a very strong closeness and always keep relationships at the heart of everything we do.”

The new educational ideas developed by Northern Cass may spread beyond eastern North Dakota. Steiner hopes they do. He and McPherson believe the lessons learners are exposed to in the studios are more likely to stay with them than, as Steiner put it, the facts they learn for a test and then put aside.

McPherson hopes learners will see new career opportunities in agriculture even if they don’t follow them. And even if life takes you down other paths, eat anyway, and now you’ll know a little more about the origins of that food.

“There are so many paths they could take,” she said.

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