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Pioneer works with Iowa middle school students to enlighten them about the role of biotechnology in everyday life.
Julie Townsend is a middle school science teacher in Ankeny, Iowa. As a national winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Math, she is in a class by herself when it comes to getting middle school science students fired up about life science. And it's that passion for learning that gets companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Johnston, Iowa, excited as it attempts to broaden its messages about issues like biotechnology.

More agribusinesses than ever before are reaching out beyond traditional agriculture audiences in their public relations/promotions programs. Pioneer is working with teachers to inform and enlighten consumers (students directly) about what biotechnology means to them in everyday life and beyond. The obvious connection is ultimately students carrying the message to parents, not to mention the important aspect of future jobs in the biotechnology industry to some of these middle school students.

"When a company like Pioneer is concerned with the knowledge base of the general public about genetic engineering, and they want people to be educated, they realize that most middle school teachers like me don't have the depth of knowledge that some might have about biotechnology," Townsend says. "This is new knowledge for many middle school teachers. We did not study bioengineering as undergraduates in college."

Pioneer knows that these types of public relations efforts bring long-term benefits. "We need to have a scientifically literate school force to educate rural and urban students on the issues and value biotechnology brings to farmers and consumers," says Jerry Harrington, sales public relations manager for Pioneer. "A few years ago during the introduction of biotechnology traits, it was rough sledding. We need to lay out the scientific facts for a broad base of understanding so, for example, when we have the Monarch butterfly issue, like we did a few years ago, people understand the questions from a larger perspective."


Seventh grade students watch as DNA is extracted from strawberries during Pioneer's biotech demonstrations.
There is some altruism here. Gary Thull, educational services manager for Pioneer, says the company recognizes that "if we're going to have good employees in the future we have to create a future in science and agricultural applications of science. The reality of life today is kids don't have any real idea where food comes from. Even teachers are more removed from plants and plant genetics than years ago. The end result is it's hard to fill the pipeline when no one knows what this science is really all about."

Working from the basis of needing a scientifically literate citizenry, Pioneer decided that its two objectives here - making consumers better decisionmakers about biotechnology and generating more interest in science - could be met by developing sessions for ag education and science teachers (mostly biology). The four-day workshops were held for teachers in Iowa for several years.

"Pioneer was very helpful and great to work with," says Townsend. "They provided ideas on how to present general concepts to students. I do a two-week unit with seventh grade science students. The information from Pioneer and the biotech department at Iowa State University makes it possible to do the unit."

The good news is Pioneer is reaching about 60 teachers each year with this information. The challenge is there are thousands of teachers to reach with this information all across the United States. "The reason we didn't do the workshop this summer was that we realized we need to develop Web-based systems and look at the strategy to get our information to more teachers," Thull says. "We know a strong focus is on high school students, but we need middle school teachers as well."

So, this summer middle school science teachers looked at the curriculum. "We want to provide materials about biotechnology so kids start thinking about corn instead of peas, or when they learn about DNA, it's corn genetics, not human genetics," explains Thull. "We want to make sure we're doing this right." The end result will be Web-based access to material for middle schools by the end of the year.

Thull will continue to work with teachers to make sure material accessed off the Web is provided in the proper way to get the most out of the teaching experience. "Distance learning technology, presented in the right format, will allow us to do more via the Internet," he says.
Because Townsend is part of this Pioneer effort, she's already implementing what she calls a "triangulation of efforts" between her local high school's Advanced Placement (AP) biology class, her middle school students and Pioneer. "After receiving training from Pioneer, AP biology students come into my class to help the seventh graders with an experiment using Bt corn and European corn borers," she says. "They are excited to see how genetic engineering applies to life here in Iowa. As a science teacher, I see the long-term possibilities of jobs for my kids in science someday."


How does a company like Pioneer measure the long-term success of a program like this? It's not as if the main thrust of the effort sells more bags of Pioneer corn or soybean seed. Harrington realizes that. "Sure, this doesn't directly affect product sales, but it helps condition the market when other products with these traits are introduced. Consumers will better understand the safety and research behind biotechnology.

"In instances like these, you have to look at the strategy and objectives. Is it the right thing to do with the resources we have? I believe it is. But does it directly connect with sales? That's quite difficult to measure."

Thull takes a more parochial and narrow approach to measuring success. He looks at the effect the program has on teachers and how many come back for more information to share with their students. "We can keep track of the number of teachers who keep coming back and asking for more. Some take it for credit. To get credit, they must present some of the materials in class and report on those efforts. This program has been absolutely successful."

Some teachers close to Des Moines also have brought back their science classes to Pioneer for
a one-day workshop.

As for defining and measuring success, Thull says, "People say kids aren't interested in plants. Wrong! If presented properly, rural and particularly urban kids get excited. The challenge is to get the information on biotechnology to them in an effective manner."

Townsend echoes Thull's remarks. "It's all about attitudes toward science," she says. "I want students to be open to new ideas, be curious about the world around them and yet, at the same time, be skeptical. We don't want students just accepting what they read in the newspaper or on the Web. We want them to analyze the information and come to good conclusions. Programs like this one by Pioneer do that."

If it's good for Pioneer, it's good for the industry, Thull concludes. "Pioneer believes we need to demonstrate a commitment to the communities we work in. By doing this, we create a new generation of people that will be able to support the tools of the biotechnology industry. Our ability to feed the world is going to rely on this technology and the freedom to operate with it. The better consumers understand the issues, the better able they will be to make educated decisions about these products in the future."

That's a good thing for Pioneer Hi-Bred International and the entire seed industry. "We sell our products aggressively," Harrington adds. "When both urban and rural consumers are better educated about biotechnology, it helps us be more successful in that mission." AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.

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