LASALLE (AP) — There's a rush of excitement among Trinity Catholic Academy's fourth-graders when Ron Burdon enters their classroom.
Burdon, the La Salle County Farm Bureau Foundation Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator, begins assigning students tasks needed to complete that week's agriculture science project.
One student runs to collect water. Another begins pouring cornstarch into sealable plastic bags. Combine those ingredients with a drop of oil and some food coloring, microwave for a minute and, if you're lucky, there will be corn-based plastic in the bag once it has cooled and dried.
"It's science; we're not sure if everything's going to work," Burdon said. "So it's called an experiment."
For the past nine years, Burdon has been visiting fourth-graders around La Salle County to teach them a little bit about agriculture.
"Our kids are in an agriculture community, but they don't learn about it," Burdon said.
Jeff Hartman, manager of the La Salle County Farm Bureau, said the bureau's board of directors began to realize in the 1990s that fewer children in the community were growing up with a connection to the county's agricultural base. They began the Ag in the Classroom program, which is funded through farm bureau fundraisers and state and federal funding, in 1999.
"With less people coming from the farm, one day these children will be decision makers and they need to be educated about agriculture and where food comes from," Hartman said.
It took a little while for the farm program to catch on, but now many school districts in the area participate.
"The foundation was set by the previous coordinators and Ron has taken it to a different level," Hartman said.
During a recent session in Trinity Catholic Academy in La Salle, the fourth-grade students almost all said they had been in cornfields before but most of their experiences were limited to corn mazes.
"My mom grew up on a farm, but we don't talk about that," said Logan Griggs, 9, after class.
Hartman said the program is focused on fourth-graders because that age group has reached the maturity level to comprehend the topics.
Throughout a session Burdon exposed students to basic science terminology as well as agriculture-specific knowledge.
During that visit, corn was the subject of the day. From corn stalk to husk to tassel, students learned about each piece of the plant and that only one ear of corn grows on each stalk, at least in most cases. There are more than 4,000 uses for corn, from food products to wrinkle-free clothes, he said.
TCA fourth-grade teacher Stacey Decker said, "The kids are really engaged."
Burdon managed to work in some more topical content along with the basic agricultural science. He touched upon a bit of geopolitics and economics as he discussed how the use of ethanol can reduce dependence on foreign oil, among other topics.
He explained how much corn syrup, basically sugar, is in soda.
"Fifty-six percent of the corn in this country is used for this," he said holding up a plastic bottle of colored corn syrup. He noted it's not healthy to drink too much of it.
The students also learned about the differences between oil-based and corn-based plastic products.
"Biodegradable means it breaks down with rain water," Burdon said during a demonstration that showed how corn-based packing peanuts quickly dissolve unlike their Styrofoam predecessors.
Burdon explained to students that waste is building up around the world, including vast amounts of old plastic that ends up in landfills and floating around the ocean. The plastic used in bottles and bags can take hundreds of years to break down, he said.
"We're a plastic world and we throw it all away and we don't care," Burdon said.
He briefly discussed the dangers of BPA in plastic, as well.
Generally, Burdon visits each class five times per school year with a different subject each visit.
"I hope you learned something about agriculture that you didn't know," he told the Trinity students on his last visit.
Lauren Phillips, 10, was among those lamenting the end of the agriculture sessions.
"You actually make our Monday fun," she said.
Over the course of the five weeks, students completed a number of projects, ranging from soy crayons to ice cream.
"It was very fun and our whole class likes doing it," Phillips said.