Connecting to Agriculture in Science Centers to Address Challenges of Feeding a Growing Population

Kathryn Stofer, University of Florida


The need to feed nine billion people by 2050 looms large. While the problem is complex, increasing civic engagement around the need and the potential solutions must be emphasized. Museums are fundamental places for the public to support efforts in public education to re-emphasize the connections between agriculture and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Yet many science museums do not explicitly highlight those connections through exhibits. The authors categorized a sample of science museums across the country into small, medium, and large, based on square footage, annual attendance, and operating expenses, and took inventory of exhibits at each museum. As we suspected, we found a general lack of exhibits explicitly labeled as agricultural but a high percentage of exhibits related to agriculture content or practices. Thus, we suggest science centers could re-brand existing content and programs to address civic engagement around agriculture to feed our growing population.


Estimates suggest that by the year 2050, the world will have a population of at least nine billion people, nearly two billion more than today (Godfray et al. 2010; Leaders of Academies of Sciences 2012). Furthermore, we know that the world faces challenges of adequately feeding even the current population, in both wealthy and developing countries. How will we meet the challenges of producing and distributing enough food for even more global inhabitants, especially while preserving the natural resources needed to continue to do so long term? This is the crux of the food security challenge facing the world, a challenge that crosses applied fields like agriculture as well as the underlying basic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Much of the public support for research funding and decision-making around food issues will rely on an understanding of the connections among such basic research and agricultural fields. Museums are beginning to realize their role in assisting in such civic engagement, though they have yet to take full advantage of their existing resources to do so (Kadlec 2009). Many across the spectrum of content types (e.g., science, art, or history) are already exploring exhibits and programs related to food (Merritt 2012). However, other museums may not feel that food is in their mission, or may not know easy ways to contribute to conversations about food and agriculture or connect existing resources without large inputs of time and effort (Merritt 2012). Further, they themselves may not connect the applied discipline of food production with basic science and research, or even with their current efforts at sustainability.

Science museums, more often called science centers in their professional associations, are natural contexts for agriculture and food security issues, given their existing focus in both exhibits and programming on the basic disciplines. Such support could simultaneously encourage public involvement and action on the issue and inspire and prepare the necessary future Ag-STEM research workforce. Indeed, at least a few science centers already offer agricultural connections (“Tapping into Agriculture” 2014). This article investigates the broader potential for integrating agriculture into science centers. Specifically, it examines the existence of agriculture-related content, including that related particularly to food and food security, in science centers across the United States.

Review of Literature

From the 1950s-1980s in the United States, agricultural education in secondary school was essentially separated from science and math (S1057 Multistate Research Project 2012), and to some extent from technology and engineering. Agricultural education was considered a pathway to a career immediately after high school graduation, part of a vocational program (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983; Phipps et al. 2008), while STEM classes, especially at the advanced level, were considered preparatory classes for college (Oakes 1986). This separation persists (Oakes and Saunders 2008) and may be one reason for the lack of STEM contextualization for learning through secondary school and the dropout of students from STEM career paths. Therefore, this persistent separate tracking could be a factor in the scarcity of STEM-skilled, and particularly Ag-STEM-skilled, workers in the U.S. workforce.

Calls to re-emphasize the STEM fundamentals inherent in agricultural programs (Enderlin and Osborne 1992; Hillison 1996; National Research Council 2009; Thoron and Myers 2008) aim to address the need for STEM-skilled workers, particularly in the agricultural industries and agricultural research. Existing problems of food insecurity, sustainability, and looming global crises of feeding a growing population demand interdisciplinary research and solutions (Godfray et al. 2010; Schmidhuber and Tubiello 2007; Guillou and Matheron 2014).

Another fundamental problem thought to plague STEM education is a lack of real-world context (National Research Council [U.S.] 1996; Rivet and Krajcik 2008). STEM fields struggle to retain students and excite them about careers, suffering especially from a lack of real-world connection and, especially for women, connection to helping people (White 2005; Wilson and Kittleson 2013; Herrera et al. 2011; Maltese 2008; Carlone and Johnson 2007).

However, school is neither the only place, nor necessarily the most frequent place, a person learns. In a typical American’s lifetime, over 95 percent of one’s time is spent outside of a formal school context, and even during formal school years, a significant portion of one’s time is spent away from the classroom (Falk and Dierking 2010). That time may be spent on paid or volunteer work, recreation, socializing, or family, among other things, meaning that there is a significant influence of these social and community groups on learning (Rogoff 2003; Vygotsky 1978). The preponderance of out-of-school influence means that to truly re-emphasize the interconnectedness of agriculture and STEM, learners must see the connections throughout their lives, not only in their formal classrooms.

The adult public in the United States has long been thought to be able to benefit from increased science knowledge and skills, which could result in more able and engaged participation in the workforce (Carnevale et al. 2011) and in our democracy (Meinwald and Hildebrand 2010; Miller 2010). The majority of workforce indicators predict a further skills gap in the coming years between employers’ needs and employees’ skills at the time of hire (Carnevale et al. 2011; Goecker et al. 2010; Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century [U.S.] 2007). Further, as recently as 2008, roughly 70 percent of U.S. adults were thought to be unable to read and make use of The New York Times Science section (Miller 2010), one metric lately used to track the effectiveness of science communication for broad outreach and baseline science “literacy.” However, many adults, once finished with their degrees, do not return to formal school for additional learning.

Science centers play a major role in adult and out-of-school science learning (Falk and Dierking 2000). In fact, they naturally embrace many of the ideals inherent in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for secondary school science learning: question-driven, learner-centered, hands-on, and integrated development of knowledge, practices, and abilities (Bell et al. 2009). They also attract a wide audience of learners each year, both school groups and independent visitors (Falk and Dierking 2000). These days, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population lives on a farm (National Institute of Food and Agriculture 2015), and informal education institutions are one major potential source of adult learning about agriscience.

While students are in formal school, agriscience teachers may use science centers to reinforce agriscience learning, and these field trips may be especially important for rural residents. In the United States, agriculture is often overlooked as an explicit component of formal curricula in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, whether those curricula are integrated as STEM or separate, and agriculture may also be disconnected from these domains in the minds of the public. Reconnecting agriculture with its research and engineering underpinnings in public spaces through the context of food can reinforce the interconnectedness between them that some students learn in school, or provide connections for students who still experience the Ag-STEM subjects independently of each other.

Without connections to agriculture in these everyday settings, the artificial intellectual divide between agriculture and other science domains in the minds of the public may be perpetuated. This public divide can hurt not only efforts to prepare school children to be future Ag-STEM researchers and workers but also efforts to involve the public in decision-making for sustainable food production for our future population.

Science centers have begun to explore ways to be more involved in public scientific issues (Kadlec 2009; McCallie 2010; Worts 2011). Moving beyond simply presenting engaging information and experiments on accepted science, many are beginning to introduce exhibits and theaters that explore science at the forefront, aiming to present science and technology as it emerges, with all the surrounding ethical, economic, and environmental considerations. The Café Scientifique, or Science Café, movement is explicitly trying to foster public dialogue about these considerations and issues by bringing the public together in forums designed to encourage discussion with experts (Dallas 2006; McCallie 2010).

Previous special journal issues, including Museums and Social Issues in April 2012 and the March/April 2014 volume of the Association of Science-Technology Centers’ Dimensions, explored case studies of exhibitions related to food in more detail, including internationally. However, little attention has been paid so far to a broader, field-wide emphasis on bringing agriculture to all science center visitors and thus to a significant portion of the U.S. public. The focus on food also could neglect the broader story of agriculture and its global effects from start to finish, from research to production to distribution, with its STEM basis as well as its context that touches everyone.

Purpose of the Study

For the many reasons outlined, science centers are ideal places to start to support efforts to make explicit and emphasize the Ag-STEM connections for all of their audiences. Indeed, we suspect that in many cases existing exhibits and programs could support Ag-STEM efforts without major renovations; in fact, such emphasis may require only minor adjustments to language and framing in promotional and educational materials, programs, and the exhibits themselves. Therefore, this study sampled large and small U.S. science centers to determine which and to what extent existing exhibits have explicit or underlying relations to agriculture that could be exploited for Ag-STEM integration emphasis purposes.


A sample of science centers in the United States was created, spanning geographical and size diversity to the best extent possible. A list of the top ten science centers by 2010 annual attendance (Walheimer 2012) was the starting point for devising the sample of large science centers. To this list were added well-known large museums or centers that were not on the list due to lack of membership in professional organizations, namely the Smithsonian Air and Space, American History, and Natural History Museums, The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The addition of these centers to our list increased our geographic diversity by including Texas and Washington, D.C. (A complete list of science centers and locations is provided in the Appendix.) Estimated annual attendance, total exhibit square footage, and annual operating budget were confirmed via center web sites, annual reports, or phone calls to ensure they all had similar resources. The minimum criteria for inclusion in the list was a budget of 10 million dollars annually and visitation of at least 200,000. Centers were neither excluded nor included based on square footage, as reliable estimates of exhibit space versus total building space could not be obtained for all centers.

For the sample of small- and medium-sized science centers, an online alphabetical list of member science centers from the Association of Science-Technology Centers (“List of Science Centers in the United States” 2013) was numbered. A list of random numbers was generated at and then each center that matched the first fifteen numbers in the list of random numbers was chosen. Centers were confirmed to be still in operation, not on the list of large centers already generated, and not in the same city as the large centers. If a center was excluded in this process, the next random number on the list was matched and confirmation continued in this manner until there was a total of 15 small- and medium-sized centers.

Next, in January 2014, the web sites of all the identified centers were visited and the page that listed all of their exhibits found. Counting everything the science center itself listed as an exhibit on those pages, the exhibit titles and brief one- to three-sentence description of each exhibit listed on that page were recorded. For example, the Museum of Science, Boston, lists their exhibits at; on this page, each exhibit is listed with a title, such as “A Bird’s World,” followed by a short description, “Take a virtual tour of Acadia National Park in this exhibit, which includes a specimen of every bird found in New England.” The link following that description takes the viewer to a longer description, and the first paragraph on each of those individual exhibit pages was captured for the long description. Therefore, there were up to three pieces of data for each exhibit at each center: exhibit title, short exhibit description, and long exhibit description.

To determine which exhibits were related to agriculture, the titles and the short and long descriptions that explicitly used the term agriculture were noted first. Next the titles and descriptions of topics were read again to identify those that were related to agriculture, based on seven of the eight pathways of the National Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources (AFNR) Career Cluster Content Standards (National Council for Agricultural Education 2009).

Each title and short and long exhibit description was qualitatively coded (Auerbach and Silverstein 2003; Patton 2002) as to whether or not it was related to agriculture. In other words, was the title or short or long description related to one or more of the eight pathways of the AFNR Career Clusters? We coded each as clearly related; probably related but somewhat unclear from the limited information given; probably not related but an argument could be made for its relatedness; or definitely not related. Some exhibits did not have content that was related to Ag-STEM but were definitely designed around Ag-STEM skills, such as observation, finding patterns, or modeling; these exhibits were coded specifically as skills and included in the counts of related exhibits. The author and a research assistant worked together to develop the codes and coded one large science center’s exhibits together. After they had agreed on the meaning of the codes, each coded half of the large and small science centers.

Special Note: The National Ag Science Center

Despite its name, the National Ag Science Center in Modesto, California, does not yet have a physical space, and therefore, was not part of our study. However, since they are already fluidly combining the traditional material of science centers with the agricultural context required to address problems of feeding more and more people, they serve as an example here. As Center Director Michelle Laverty notes, “Few [students] make the link between math and recipes, density and soils, or light and plant growth. Students also have a limited view of careers in agriculture” (Laverty 2014, 28). The National Ag Science Center also exemplifies the ideal that it doesn’t take a large-city science center to bring meaningful content to students. The students they serve in their county live at least two hours from San Francisco.

The Ag Science Center’s two main programs are examples of the ways existing science content can be contextualized with agriculture through hands-on exploration and through local partnerships. First, lab experiences in the mobile lab of the Ag Science Center connect typical experiments—such as testing pH or using a microscope—to agriculture and food production by testing soil pH or examining beneficial insects for crops under the microscope. Second, their summer camp paired local FFA students working in agriculture with middle-school campers using similar hands-on contextualized experiments and allowing the two groups of students to share with each other (Laverty 2014).


Overall, of the large centers sampled, none had agriculture in the title or short exhibit description, and only four of 316 exhibits sampled explicitly had agriculture in the longer exhibit descriptions. However, fully 45 percent of the exhibits were at least probably agriculture-related based on the titles and long descriptions, 40 percent when considering the short descriptions. (See Table 2.)

Take, for example, the St. Louis Science Center, one of the large science centers examined. A list of some of the exhibits and their long descriptions appears in Table 3. The website did not list short descriptions at the time of analysis. None of the exhibit titles and only one description, for the Life Science Lab, explicitly uses the word agriculture. Yet only four of the 18 exhibits—the Energizer Machine kinetic sculpture, Planetarium, Experience Flight simulator, and Amazing Science Demonstrations—are not obviously related to agriculture in the AFNR Career Clusters, based on the titles and descriptions provided. The Planetarium and Amazing Science Demonstration shows may feature agriculture, however, and the Structures exhibit may have related content not obviously described on the website.

Of the smaller science centers sampled, overall nearly 60 percent of the exhibits are agriculture-related, even though none have the word agriculture explicitly in the title or short or long description. We also discovered that while smaller centers overall had higher rates of agriculture-related exhibits based on their titles and descriptions, the centers also tend to be more specialized. This meant there was a higher variation in the presence of agriculture-related exhibits among smaller science centers. For example, all the exhibits at the Ocean Science Exhibit Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were agriculture-related due to the center’s overall ocean focus. On the other hand, only one of ten exhibits at the New Mexico Museum of Space History was coded as agriculture-related, as that museum dealt primarily with space history and exploration.

The overall range of related content was very rarely explicitly related to food and agriculture. Instead, exhibits dealing with basic sciences or engineering, or applied fields such as biotechnology, were prevalent in the agriculture-related exhibits. Exhibits dealing with animals or plants broadly, including those about evolution, were found. There were also a number of exhibits related to skills of science research, such as observation, math, and modeling, which are fundamental to both science and agriculture research practice.


Large science centers tended to be more evenly split between related and non-related content and covered a broader range of content overall. Small centers were highly variable, ranging from a large amount of agriculture-related content to none. Some small science centers were actually just a planetarium theater, which might show agriculture-themed shows about life in space but did not indicate that this was the case. Overall, however, there were definitely many exhibits that could be related to agriculture with some reframing of existing content.

Given the existence of content that could be re-branded without costly and extensive renovation, we suggest several ways that science centers could start to use their exhibits and programs to highlight the challenge the world faces of feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050; by addressing the existing exhibits and programs, science centers can immediately begin to make those traditional offerings more effective at engaging the public in social issues (Worts 2011). Some international museums, especially, already have programs and exhibits on agriculture (“Tapping into Agriculture” 2014). Others already focus on issues of sustainability (Worts 2011; “Spotlights” 2014), though they may not explicitly relate sustainability to food production or bridge to more traditional agricultural topics.

First and foremost, science centers can highlight their existing exhibits that are agriculture-related simply by connecting the word agriculture explicitly with programs and exhibits. This could be done by posting additional signs on exhibits or components or by creating field trips or public tours on topics of agriculture, either docent-led or self-guided. For programming both in the science center and traveling to schools, educators could redesign school programs to use agriculture as a context but offer similar hands-on explorations already in place. For example, a DNA extraction laboratory experience could be set up in the context of understanding how plants fight disease or in the context of genetic engineering to produce more nutritious products such as beta-carotene-enhanced rice. Similarly, science centers could partner with with local agriculture research colleges and industries as well as with science research entities to create a special event day or adult evening science café around agriscience issues.

Many science centers have already begun implementing various sustainability measures, which they may or may not make obvious to their visitors. These may include installation of solar panels, as at the Maryland Science Center, food partnerships and waste reduction through recycling and composting, as at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Brulington, Vt., or smarter water use, as at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Prairie Ridge Ecostation. These, too, can be directly tied to the problem of preserving resources for food production and distribution. Highlighting hunger problems that exist in the community gives these efforts a real local tie, making global, somewhat abstract problems such as climate change more relevant and motivating to individuals (Lachapelle et al. 2012).

Regardless of size, attendance, location, or operating budget, smaller science centers in rural areas have much to offer. This means teachers can use any science center to make Ag-STEM connections, even if they cannot travel outside their local area on a field trip. Science centers of all types can reach out to and work with agriculture and science teachers to encourage them to see these connections and offer their students a real-world problem as the context for their STEM learning, that of food production for our future population. They could market their professional development opportunities to a broader audience if they included agriculture teachers. If agriculture teachers consider the science centers as resources, they could work with center staff to find further connections between their curricula and the exhibits and programs. Botanical gardens, zoos, and aquaria have natural connections to agriculture based on their exhibitions of plants and animals and the related land use and resource needs, but these connections may be overlooked not only by agriculture teachers but also by the organizations themselves.

While we did not look specifically at agriculture, living history, or farm museums for their STEM-related content, we suspect that there are also existing exhibits in those museums that could be used to highlight Ag-STEM connections. These exhibits could be used, therefore, to talk about the challenges of feeding a growing population and the role of Ag-STEM research in addressing these issues, and the institutions could reach out to STEM teachers as a potential new audience as well. Moreover, agriculture museums and science centers could partner in these efforts, sharing each other’s strengths and building even larger partnerships. University Cooperative Extension, for example, the nexus between agricultural research and public outreach in the Land Grant system, exists in nearly every county of the United States, not just in college towns or large cities (National Institute of Food and Agriculture 2015).


This article has explored the need for public engagement around research efforts for agriculture and agriscience—including global sustainable agricultural production, nutrition, hunger, and food and food security—and some ways that science centers can support these efforts. Adding agricultural context to science centers can emphasize Ag-STEM connections for both school children and the general adult public. Engaging the public directly in co-creation of content (Tate 2012), framing issues and moving people to action (Kadlec 2009), and thinking more broadly about a science center’s mission and role in the community as related to food issues (Merritt 2012) will all help to address need for public involvement in meeting the long-term challenge of feeding a growing planet. At the same time, expanding the examination of food and agriculture can continue to serve more basic goals of public education and workforce development, particularly around Ag-STEM research.

The world is facing complex problems related to food that will require innovative agricultural science and STEM thinkers. Yet these thinkers cannot be fully supported in their efforts without communities that provide local input and develop a continual supply of well-prepared STEM workers. As science centers move to engage more with contemporary issues, they do not always need to completely overhaul their current operations to do so. With agriculture and food issues, the basic exhibits and programs often exist and may be addressed using a less costly re-framing and contextualization as a more immediate first step.

The author wishes to thank Christie Harrod for her assistance on this project.

About the Author

Kathryn Stofer, PhD, is Research Assistant Professor of STEM Education and Outreach at the University of Florida. She researches how people gather, access, and make use of current research information, especially around agriscience through science centers and in partnership with University Extension. She spent several years as an Earth science educator and exhibit manager at the Maryland Science Center.


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Author: seceij

Chuck Gahun is the content manager for the SECEIJ website and technical consultant for NCSCE

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