BY SHARON MICHALIK, PHOTOGRAPHY BY HAROLD BRAMTON & JORDAN WILLIAMS
Instead of grabbing shovels and buckets, agriculture biotechnology students at Deane Bozeman School in Panama City get ready for class with masks, rubber gloves and test tubes.
The students in Becky Peltonen’s agriculture biotechnology classes tend a conventional garden but much of their time is spent in the lab learning to clone plants to understand the science behind plant propagation. “We’re teaching them a unique skill set here that translates into the veterinary science world as well as into the human medical field,” Peltonen explains while surveying her students at work in the lab. “This is about learning to use precision tools, chemistry formulas for growing media, and aseptic techniques to propagate foods to eat and learning to prepare plants that can be shipped anywhere in the world. We cover all of the foundations of agricultural science; taking care of the animals, their babies, the plants, the ground and every element of the farm,” she explains.
The sterile lab environment in their classroom includes three laminar flow hoods, an autoclave and other highly technical instruments you’d expect to see in a medical facility. Jobs in a rapidly growing plant cloning industry are well paying. “We are really fortunate to have Oglesby Plants International Inc. right in Altha. They are the number one plant cloning facility in the entire country and they clone and ship plants all over the world,” Peltonen says. Her students leave school with some of the skills needed to work in that highly technical field, or they are ready for pre-med and pre-veterinary science programs at the university level.
“It’s incredible that you can take one tiny bit of matter, and you can grow it into hundreds of thousands of plants,” says 17-year-old Ricardo Amora. Classmate Alex Wiggins nods. “What we learn from a textbook in class we get to put into practice in real life. That almost never happens.”
Not all of Peltonen’s students are working in the lab. Outside the classroom is a beehive of activity with students buzzing from an ornamental garden to an oversized greenhouse that sits atop a man-made marsh. Alongside, there’s a chicken coop. The other side of the garden is home to rabbit hutches and a goat pen. The students also incubate quail for replenishing wildlife areas and maintain giant tanks that house catfish. The class hopes to add a cow and a pig to their menagerie soon.
Everyone is especially proud of the marsh grass project. “We restored about 300 feet of Bay County shore line with marsh grasses that we grew right here,” Peltonen says, proudly showing off the on-site greenhouse that shelters rows upon rows of grasses with their roots submerged in ankle-deep water. Shoreline restoration projects counteract erosion and regenerate the general health of the estuarine ecosystem. Learning to grow and to split the grasses are important lessons but Peltonen says she teaches something much more valuable. “It’s important to me that we take care of our environment and that the students learn how to do that and how to make sure they are giving back to their communities.” This commitment was noted on the state level when the project was selected as the first place winner in Florida’s Future Farmers of America’s environmental division and its project leader, Kayla Bashore, was tapped for consideration for national honors.
Just like their counterparts in the Agriculture Science program at Rosenwald High School, Alex and Ricardo love “digging in the dirt” and working with plants. “I love to save plants,” Alex says. “I got an olive tree. It was a stick, really. It looked dead and it was given to me as my project. It’s four feet tall now and doing really well. Just seeing what I was able to accomplish with that tree is exciting.”
“You have to have the right soil for planting and if you don’t have it, you have to know how to make soil amendments,” she says. “I make sure my students know how to read a fertilizer bag and how to fertilize and take care of their lawns. They learn about herbicides and how to use them because all diseases that impact the farm start in the soil.”
“My parents said that my first word was dirt,” Peltonen notes with a smile. She works hard to bring her lifelong love of science into the classroom. “I invited a guest speaker every chance I got and I learned from them and I spent a lot of time researching and reading on my own. When I got this job I read like the dickens and it wasn’t Jane Austen,” she jokes.
The students are required to keep detailed notebooks that capture their experiments and experiences in her class and serve as reminders about pH balances and projects yet to be completed. The students are required to complete either ten small agricultural improvements on their own or “one really big one” as part of her class. If a student grows an entire garden at their house it is considered a big project, she explains. The work is documented for the class but also in resume form “so they walk out of this school with their academic diploma and a work resume, ready for the world.”
“We’ve learned so much about life in this class, not just about plants,” says Alex. “Last month she taught us about balancing a checkbook, loans, and credit scores and how to buy a house. My mom was pretty proud I learned that.”
The projects also provide other practical perks. “Around Mother’s Day,” Peltonen says, “I had a student who was proud to tell me that he made sure he bought his mom a perennial instead of an annual plant because an annual wouldn’t be around next year and a perennial would. He wanted her to have something that would always be around. He learned that in my class.”
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