Corn for third graders
--Pat Byrne, USDA-ARS, Columbia, MO

The hardest part about talking to my son's third grade class was deciding which of the many possible topics on maize to cover in a one-hour time-slot. I finally settled on these three areas:

Origin and diversity of maize. The poster "Indian Corn of the Americas" was a perfect visual aid for this, as it includes photos of teosinte, pod corn, an array of colorful landraces, and modern varieties. A big hit was the gray mass of "huitlacoche" (corn smut), which elicited incredulous groans when I explained that it's eaten as a delicacy in Mexico.

Biology and reproduction. Many of the kids had heard terms like tassel, silks, and husks, but couldn't match the names with plant parts very well. Ideas on how the reproductive process works were also pretty wild. So I went through the pollination /fertilization/seed development cycle. To illustrate plant defense mechanisms, we had a husking contest with tight- vs. loose-husked ears.

Corn utilization. The day before I talked, the teacher assigned as homework that each student should look around the house, read ingredients labels, and list as many things as they could that contain some form of corn. The class of 20 came up with 85 different items, including some that were new to me: marshmallows, cherry licorice, puppy chow, goldfish food, rice krispies, and sonic boom (whatever that is). We had a vote on their favorite way to eat corn; fresh, sweet corn narrowly edged out popcorn, with breakfast cereal, cornbread, and canned corn receiving one or two votes each.

For a finale, each kid got a couple of colorful ears, which they sketched the next day as an art project.

One of the main factors in the success of this venture was a teacher who had trained her class to be good listeners, and was willing to do pre- and post-activities to involve the kids more and make my talk more than an isolated event. 


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