Dan Swafford has always been ahead of his time. As boy growing up in rural Missouri, he dreamt of the future—a bona fide geek, he says, before popular usage of the term came to mean having an eccentric devotion to something like computers or comics.
“I wasn’t interested in raising livestock or things like that,” says Swafford, an ag teacher at Christiansburg High School in Christiansburg, Va., and a local program specialist at Virginia Tech. “I was interested in what farming was going to be like in the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd centuries.”
He was on the forefront of the personal computer revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, and eventually taught shop safety to students working with robotics. Robotics was interesting, but they didn’t appeal to him until a teacher’s conference in 2002. That’s where Swafford heard of John Deere tractors that could be operated remotely—essentially robots doing farm work.
“It was like, Wow, this is the stuff I’d dreamed about as a kid,” he says.
Today Swafford is the one blowing minds, showing students and his fellow ag teachers that geeks can wear Carhartts. He started with a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Challenge Grant and built a robotic riding mower. Now students in Swafford’s classes tinker with LEGO Mindstorm kits, an educational line from the Danish toymaker with programmable bricks. Swafford’s students even hold mini LEGO tractor pulls with their classroom creations.
“It’s a hands-on problem solving thing,” he says. “One remark I hear all of the time is, ‘I really enjoyed doing this; it really made me think.’ Well, when a kid says ‘I enjoyed thinking,’ that’s a major accomplishment.”
Travis Scherer, an ag teacher at Tri-County High School in Wolcott, Ind., has received similar feedback from his students after the school implemented futuristic elements into the curriculum last year. Thanks to monies from state grants, the school built a working wind turbine and a solar panel. Students monitor the energy output from both structures, have learned to measure wind power, and have even built their own mini turbines.
Scherer says there are three working wind farms in his school corporation and two more coming online soon, so the school’s new endeavor “opened up those kids eyes to what was going on in the community around them. I think once they got in the classroom, they got a better understanding of what it’s all about. It helped educate parents, too; you have no idea how many crazy rumors there are about those wind farms in our community.”
The program has been so successful that Scherer and other teachers want to build a learning center around the wind turbine and solar panel, and open it to the public.
Swafford says that’s one of the best parts about cutting-edge technology: That it draws individuals to his classroom that wouldn’t otherwise find agriculture interesting.
“For some of these kids, ag was never an option,” Swafford says, noting that he makes a special effort to get female students involved. “Now they see how cool it can be.”
Both teachers realize successfully implementing such technologies into the classroom can seem intimidating but recommend relying on existing resources for help.
“Don’t go at it alone,” says Scherer. “We did our project as a group of teachers. The whole school got involved. It’s nice to be able to divide up the work and have others hold you accountable and remind you what you need to do, because we all get busy. That way, you can stay on top of things, and the ideas you have come to life instead of just sitting on your desk on a piece of paper.”
“A lot of times,” says Swafford, “if you don’t know something, there’s a good chance someone in your school does. Don’t be scared and don’t be afraid to ask for help. With some of this stuff, I didn’t have a clue when I started, but I found someone who did. Also, don’t be hung up on knowing more than your kids, because a lot of times, you won’t. And that’s okay.”
The only drawback with technology is that there’s always something newer, something better.
“The other day I got a call from my twin brother—he’s a teacher, too,” says Swafford, who has taught for 35 years. “He said I’ve got to check into remote-controlled helicopters. I don’t know much about them, but that’s my next thing, I think. You could attach a camera and take streaming video of fields and livestock patterns—so much neat stuff! If you don’t change, you don’t grow. Retirement scares me.”