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Aliza Blackburn, an 18-year-old senior at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, has felt the inside of a live cow. She has made soap out of goat milk, collected dry corn husks to make fall decorations and harvested tomatoes, watermelon and sweet corn to sell at a student-run market.

Blackburn grew up in small-town Pennsylvania and saw farm fields before starting at the Milton Hershey School in fifth grade. But the school has made agriculture an integral part of her educational experience.

On more than 4,200 sprawling acres in southeastern Pennsylvania, the school offers a tuition-free, residential education to about 2,000 kids. Founded in 1909 and run with the chocolatier’s fortune ever since, the school uses its acreage as a core component of its curriculum. From kindergarten through 12th grade, students learn lessons and tackle projects through the Agricultural and Environmental Education program.

In Aliza’s case, the lessons are particularly relevant. She selected agriculture as her career pathway for high school and she plans to major in animal science in college next year, so all of the farm-related projects tie into career exploration.

“That definitely helped bring the classroom to life,” Aliza said. And even beyond agriculture, she sees connections to her science and math curriculum in the projects, whether they are for a class or an extracurricular. “It could all connect in one way or another to my classes.”

Jaunine Fouché, the director of the Agricultural and Environmental Education program, dedicates her days to finding new ways to let students further explore the concepts they learn in their classes with projects that have real-world impact and relevance.

Giving students more control over their learning by letting them work on projects that interest them has become a common strategy in modern classrooms. Project-based learning, as it’s called, is supposed to engage students and give them time to practice important skills for the 21st century workplace, including collaboration, problem-solving, creativity and interdisciplinary thinking.

Fouché, a 2015 winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, said providing this kind of opportunity, while laudable, is difficult. Staff, she said, have to be highly trained and masters of their craft to support students as they pursue a range of possible answers to completely open-ended questions. This type of teaching is harder than simply lecturing at the front of the classroom.

Related: A study finds promise in project-based learning for young low-income children

But Fouché believes the harder work has its reward, particularly with the low-income student population that the Milton Hershey School serves.

“They don’t have a lot of power in their lives, and I think it’s incredibly important to empower them through their own education,” Fouché said.

“Students are very savvy at knowing when they’ve been presented with an authentic opportunity versus a canned opportunity.”

Sometimes students come up with the ideas for projects – like the time the high school marketing classes did market research about preferred ice cream flavors among their peers and then, through the culinary arts department, developed recipes to actually make those flavors, taste-test them during lunches, and sell them through the AAE’s Project Market, a student-run market open year-round to the school and the public.

Other times staff approach the students to help solve a problem – like the time staff members wanted to figure out a way to monitor the health of the bee colonies producing honey on campus and tapped students to do the problem-solving. (High schoolers in the computational technology classes programmed sensors and developed “buzz boxes” to monitor the hives.)

“Students are very savvy at knowing when they’ve been presented with an authentic opportunity versus a canned opportunity,” Fouché said. “We are very good at providing them authentic ones.”

Agriculture-related projects aren’t the only ones Milton Hershey students work on. Project-based learning, particularly using science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM), is woven throughout the student experience.

Aliza and a partner designed an experiment as part of her astronomy class that they submitted for a NASA competition that lets kids test out their ideas in space. She and her partner will send a small piece of canvas, a wooden bead and a copper bead up to the astronauts on the International Space Station along with oil paint to see how the microgravity environment affects paint curing and adhesion to the three different surfaces. They’ll conduct the same experiment on Earth and compare their data with the NASA astronauts’ data for information to answer their research question.

Fouché oversees this program through the Agricultural and Environmental Education program, too. Her department exists to bring learning out of the textbooks.  Or, as she put it, “To provide the experiential context as an extension of what occurs in the classroom.”

And Aliza can vouch for how engaging that can be.

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