Australian school students have had firsthand experience of the future of farming, including exposure to the concepts of using cloud computing, data and artificial intelligence (AI) to tackle real world agricultural challenges.
Digital Agriculture will be critical to meet the needs of a global population estimated to top 9 billion people by 2050, to address critical sustainability challenges.
With funding from Microsoft, CSIRO piloted Australia’s first Microsoft FarmBeats for Students initiative. This initiative allowed students in Years 9 and 10 the opportunity to participate in a hands-on AI sustainable learning experience applying smart farming techniques to food production, which delivered important learning outcomes and digital skills.
Participating students and teachers received lesson plans aligned to the Australian Curriculum, tools, and technology to explore how big data, AI, machine learning and Internet of Things technologies apply to real world agricultural challenges through inquiry-based learning.
Additionally, teachers participating in the Australian FarmBeats for Students initiative received specialised professional development helping them to use the technology and support their students. Schools received FarmBeats kits including a Raspberry Pi device as well as soil moisture, light, ambient temperature, and humidity sensors to be used in student projects.
Using the INDRA platform students were able to gain access to historical data from the local area to examine the changes that have taken place in the climate over time and to consider how those changes impact current and future growing conditions.
Real data, real impact
INDRA is a climate and hazard risk analytics engine designed to trawl big data collections and provide insights about challenges facing selected geographical areas.
INDRA forms part of the foundation for the Climate Services for Agriculture (CSA) digital platform which was developed by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, to deliver historical and predicted climate information at a 5 km² resolution.
Information from CSA about past and predicted rainfall, temperature, heat and frost risk and evapo-transpiration is presented to farmers through a dashboard.
During the inquiry phase of the program, some students used the CSA prototype to plan their own investigation using the Microsoft FarmBeats kit. Students used CSA to understand how much rainfall their area had received over 10 years, taking averages of those data points, and comparing it to the rainfall needs of plants they might grow for their investigation. Students also had access to Microsoft Lobe – a no-code machine learning application that students and teachers were able to train for various applications such as counting number of insects, recognising insect types, and identifying ripe fruits.
Armed with all the resulting insights students were encouraged to consider how to adapt growing practices for optimum yield.
“The teachers selected for the FarmBeats for Students initiative demonstrated passion for teaching AI. Many reported that the inquiry nature of the program allowed them to extend their students’ STEM skills, critical thinking, and creativity. It was great to see so many different schools and teams participating in the pilot, which reached 397 students from 18 schools, including year 10 all-female digital technology students from St Margaret Mary’s College in Townsville,” said Ruth Carr, CSIRO Director Education and Outreach.
Pioneering FarmBeats for Students
According to Graham Nolan, a computer science teacher from Christ Church Grammar School in Western Australia, “Microsoft FarmBeats took concepts that we understand in a familiar, very deep technical sense and allowed us to take a step back and look at them as a solution to a problem. In this context it was an agricultural problem with a societal impact, looking at the benefits of how that is going to change the way that we live, our future well-being and ability to survive.”
Kiara Marzohl, a science teacher at Warwick Senior High School, Western Australia said “We learned a lot about the technology and its application and were able to use it as a great extension to our Science Inquiry and Earth and Space Sciences content. We’re even looking to modify our Year 12 Integrated Science course to be based on the FarmBeats program.”
At Caritas College South Australia, STEM teacher Nathan O’Brien said, “The Lobe activities helped build student’s understanding of visual recognition technology and use. It was good for them to really see that in process as they guided the model through by adding their own photos and testing its accuracy.”
Tiffany Wright, Director of Education Microsoft ANZ said, “Given the national importance of our agricultural sector and the need for green skills in precision and sustainable agriculture we are delighted with the success of the program and our support for CSIRO.”
“FarmBeats for Students provides hands on learning opportunities for both teachers and students and fosters an important understanding of how data and AI are reshaping our world, it equips students with critical digital skills and insights that set them up for success. In 2022 we hope to expand this opportunity to more high schools all around Australia.”
To register interest in the FarmBeats for Students program in Australia, teachers can visit ‘Microsoft FarmBeats for Students program – CSIRO Digital Careers’ or send an email to [email protected]
CSIRO is Australia’s national science agency and innovation catalyst. CSIRO solves the greatest challenges through innovative science and technology. Its collaborative research turns science into solutions for food security and quality; clean energy and resources; health and wellbeing; resilient and valuable environments; innovative industries; and a secure Australia and region.
Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.
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