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Microsoft Planting In An Indiana High School With Hopes Of Harvesting Talent

The program consistently monitors soil conditions like temperature and water content. Students from across the country saw live demos at last year's FFA Convention in Indianapolis. (Brock Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

The National FFA Organization has been around for years, and was founded well before computers and technology were intertwined with agriculture. 

But today, many farmers rely on technology and data in their fields, and to reflect those changes in the industry FFA has started a partnership with Microsoft. 

An Indiana school is one that’s leading the charge, and helping the company define what the program will be for students across the country. 

Aleesa Dickerson, Hauser Jr/Sr High School's Agriculture teacher stumbled upon the grant.

“It was actually a snow day,” she admits. “I didn’t have anything to do, so I wrote a grant on a snow day.”

That snow day grant was for FarmBeats. Hauser is the only school in Indiana and one of just a few in the Midwest with the technology. The project’s pitch is pretty simple, Microsoft provides the technology to measure soil conditions, while schools give their feedback and tell the company how to improve it. 

ffa classroom
Dickerson says she applied for the grant on a snow day, and is already looking for additional ways to integrate the software into her classroom. (Brock Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

Dickerson, or Mrs. D as she’s called by many of her students, has a number of other opportunities for her FFA students, she believes this one is unique and offers access to technology other program can’t.

“As we mechanize agriculture and get more efficient in the way that we are GPS planting our crops and using GPS technology to identify hot spots in our fields and doing all of that stuff the kids are getting interested in the fact that they can do that,” she says. “[Students] can program they can be involved in agriculture that way.”

Enrollment Increases Present Opportunty

Like many small, rural school districts in Indiana, Hauser has a limited budget. Data from the Indiana Department of Education shows Hauser's enrollment has increased slightly in recent years. Administrators in districts across the state say enrollment increases usually afford them the opportunity to invest in new programs and facilities. 

Hauser is one of a handful of districts in the state offering a computer science program, and that’s something Dickerson credits in the development of her program. The school is currently in the process of renovating the FFA space and recently hired a second agriculture teacher.

“It has really connected the dots for them,” Dickerson says. “The computer science program we have at Hauser and the ag program are two of the few extra electives that we offer to the kids. So, we’ve really tried to work together so that both of our programs can benefit and I saw this as an opportunity.”

While, Dickerson still teaches students on more traditional topics like raising livestock, cooking, and welding she says changes in the industry pushed her to adapt the program.

'Talent Pool Doesn't Exist Right Now'

And that’s just as true in Silicon Valley and Seattle as it is in Hope. Ranveer Chandra is the Chief Scientist at Microsoft’s Azure Global. He says it is difficult to find students who grasp the connection between technology and agriculture.

“That talent pool doesn’t exist right now,” he admits. “It’s very thin there’s not many students that are equipped with both sides—that is having a good background, good knowledge of agriculture and people equipped with these skills. This is where we realize we need to bridge the gap.”

Chandra says FarmBeats is a work in progress. Microsoft hopes to learn from students and better understand their needs. Doing that, he says, will go a long way to achieving long-term goals like building a robust talent pipeline.

student with Microsoft employee
A Microsoft employee demonstrates the FarmBeats program to an attendee of the FFA's annual convention in Indinapolis earlier this year. (Brock Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

“While we’re building [FarmBeats], it’s important for us to think of it globally part of it is what we’re building at Microsoft, but we want to bring this technology to farmers right now as well as farmers of the future,” he says. Chandra believes all farmers can benefit from having data more readily available, and starting with students allows the project to change and develop.

“That’s why FFA is such an important partner for us,” he says. “We are working with the FFA on a curriculum around data and data-driven agriculture for 700 students.”

While not all students in the program say it’s altered their career paths, many say it has opened their eyes to how technology can be used in the classroom. The school says Microsoft has been receptive to their feedback.

Hope FFA at Hauser High School is using the program to test soil characteristics like water levels and temperature.

Kaitlynn Everroed is a junior, and one of the first students who worked with Dickerson on the FarmBeats platform. While the program hasn’t altered her intended career path after high school, she’s still learned from FarmBeats.

“The coolest thing was learning actually how to do it,” she says. Everroed is one of the students who has begun coding on the program and tailored it work with the school’s greenhouse. “Whenever I first started, I had no clue what even FarmBeats was so it was really cool to see if I put this into the soil it will tell me this, and just seeing how all of this comes together.”

Teachers say they’re already looking for new ways to integrate Farm Beats with the curriculum next year, and are optimistic students are learning skills that will prepare them for future jobs both in and outside of agriculture.

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