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But don’t take our word for it. Meet Dory Finn, a middle schooler, who “dials in” to YMF from her classroom in the Bronx to check on the condition of her fish. This isn’t idle curiosity or web
surfing. She’s been given the responsibility of calculating the correct feeding, monitoring water quality (dissolved solids, oxygen, ph, etc), keeping records about her findings, making any needed changes to the care routine of her charges based on her findings, and reporting this information, in the form of a written report to either other members of her project team or her teacher. Often the findings and the report will then be uploaded to a website. To carry out her project, Dory must accurately assess the size of the fish, keep track of the fish count in the tank, and use that information to calculate the right amount of food to add to the tank. But how does she feed these fish when she’s in the Bronx and the tank is in New Jersey? Naturally, she instructs the robot (which she and her school mates have built and programmed) to do it for her, remotely! Then, literacy and communication skills come into play as she writes up the results of her work.

If all goes well, the fish remain healthy, they thrive and Dory, in the process, learns about water chemistry, math, programming, how an aquaponics system works and she hones her writing skills. But
the beauty of this system is that even if all does not go as planned, she still learns all those things, and more. For example, what if Dory incorrectly counts the number of fish in the tank? This throws off the calculation of the food. The fish are either under fed and some die, or they are over fed and the water
chemistry falls below optimal levels. The next time she dials in to the Farm, Dory sees all is not well. A few of her charges are doing the back stroke, or the water’s so cloudy she can’t see what they’re doing! But it is not immediately apparent what’s wrong.
Now problem solving skills come into play. If the fish are dead, what killed them? Too much or too little food? Did she add too much baking soda to the water the last time, throwing the ph off balance,
causing them to die from an imbalance in the water chemistry? Or did she underfeed them? By now she’s problem solving on a deep level, analyzing complex, interconnected variables to solve a real life
problem with real consequences, trying to solve a problem that she cares about. These fish are her responsibility. Poor Dory! She can’t just “skip” this kind of problem and go on to something easier, like on a worksheet. She stays with it, troubleshoots, collaborates with her schoolmates, consults with their teacher. They are all invested in finding out, in knowing and in understanding. These are lessons they don’t forget and skills that are invaluable. Dory hasn’t just learned math, science, programming, problem solving and writing----she’s learned not to give up. That’s a pretty good day’s work. And it happens every time your students come to Young McDonald’s Farm.
If you’ve followed closely the story of Dory Finn and her fish, you may have noticed that teachers seem to have played a very small part in these lessons. That’s because Dory’s teachers have learned their lesson: that a teacher is a guide and a mentor, a resource for their students. Our teachers learn that the best use of their most limited resource---their time---is to prepare their students to function independently. One of the most important goals of our professional development program is to help teachers unlearn old their old role as the center of the learning activity and recast themselves as the trusted advisor. It takes some doing, but most teachers find it liberating and they are excited by the change it brings about in their students. They see that they are creating confident, engaged, competent learners. Every teachers’ dream.