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Kansas Corn's Innovative Seed to STEM Curriculum

6-12 Curriculum

Kansas Corn works to build the future of corn by providing educational Kansas corn materials to 6-12 teachers. We invite you to utilize the resources below.

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Seed to STEM

Seed to STEM is Kansas Corn’s innovative STEM-based program for middle and high school science educators. The Kansas Corn Commission (KCC) invests in the future by providing online curriculum as well as summer workshops and lab supplies for science teachers.

Our goal is to help teachers bring lessons based on biotechnology and ethanol to the classroom. Seed to STEM was created recognizing the connection between science and agriculture and the need for tomorrow’s scientists to have greater ag literacy and awareness of careers in the industry.

Biotechnology

What is the science behind biotechnology and genetic modification?

Genetic modification, or the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is not a new concept. People have been genetically modifying plants and animals since before written history. Corn started out as a grass plant with very small seeds. Another example is the incredible variety of dog breeds that are all the same species (can interbreed) but have such different sizes, colors and fur types. Think of a poodle and a schnauzer. All of these breeds resulted from selective breeding of the same species.

We still do this today and describe the resulting offspring from these crosses as hybrids. As technology has improved, genetic modification can now be achieved by moving specific genetic material from one organism to another, resulting in what many call GMOs. The purpose of genetic modification (GM) in crops is to protect the yield of the plant from pests, diseases or other stresses in the environment (flooding, drought, etc). The technique of transgenic modification includes isolating desirable genetic traits from one organism and inserting one or more into a different organism. This allows for a variety of combinations that can be tailored for specific environmental conditions.

Selective breeding
Creating hybrids
Transgenic modification
Inserting specific traits from other organisms
DNA silencing
“Turning off” a gene that codes for a trait

Most crop GMOs use a combination of methods to help farmers meet a specific challenge. Within the United States, nearly 80% of all foods sold contain some GMOs. Currently there is no regulation to label these foods, as tests by the USDA, EPA and FDA have determined that the products that result from GM crops are not significantly different than the foods that use non-GM crops. Different countries have different rules that regulate the sale and trade of patented GMO seeds and the foods that contain these crops. The benefits of biotech crops are many and include: more affordable food, higher yields from the same amount of land, lower pesticide use, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. (See isaaa.org for more details.)

Seed to STEM Labs

Energy and Ethanol

What is ethanol? How much corn is dedicated to ethanol production? Why should corn be used to produce ethanol?

Commercial production of fuel ethanol in the U.S. involves breaking down the starch present in corn into simple sugars (glucose), feeding these sugars to yeast (fermentation), and then recovering the main product (ethanol) and byproducts (animal feed and carbon dioxide). Ethanol is an alcohol produced by yeast from sugars. Fuel ethanol is ethanol that has been highly concentrated to remove water and blended with other compounds to render the alcohol undrinkable. Ethanol production is based upon a process called “fermentation” in which yeast eat simple sugars and produce carbon dioxide and ethanol as waste products. For each pound of simple sugars, yeast can produce approximately 1/2 pound (0.15 gallons) of ethanol and an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

The value of corn as a feedstock for ethanol production is due to the large amount of carbohydrates, specifically starch. Starch can be easily processed to break down into simple sugars, which can then be fed to yeast to produce ethanol. Modern ethanol production can produce approximately 2.8 gallons of fuel ethanol per bushel of corn. The drymill ethanol production process uses only the starch portion of the corn, which is about 70% of the kernel. All the remaining nutrients: protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins, are concentrated into distiller’s grains, a valuable feed for livestock. About 40% of the US corn crop is used to produce ethanol.

Ethanol is a renewable fuel found in all gasoline blends throughout the United States. Because it is domestically produced, ethanol helps reduce America’s dependence upon foreign sources of energy. In 2014, 14.3 billion gallons of American ethanol displaced the need of 512 million barrels of crude oil, which is more than the amount of oil imported annually from Saudi Arabia.

The energy used to produce ethanol includes fuel for tractors, combines and transportation of the grain to the ethanol plant, as well as the energy in processing the corn to ethanol. However, the largest portion of the total energy present in corn is solar energy captured by the corn plant and stored in the grain as starch. When these amounts are totaled, the energy in the ethanol exceeds the fossil fuel energy used to grow and process the corn by 20 to 40%. Most of the energy for processing corn to ethanol is spent on the distillation and DDGS drying steps of the process. When wet distillers’ grain can be fed to livestock close to the ethanol plant, the savings in natural gas for drying can be as high as 20% of the total energy cost for processing corn to ethanol. Corn ethanol has some lifecycle greenhouse gas benefits compared to regular gasoline. The general consensus among researchers is that corn ethanol provides a lifecycle reduction of 10–20% in greenhouse gases compared to traditional gasoline. In 2014, this was the equivalent to taking 20 million vehicles off of the road.

Seed to STEM Labs

Growing Kansas

Why is corn a valuable crop? How does corn grow, pollinate, and produce kernels? What farming techniques are important to increase corn yield?

Corn is a grass, native to the Americas. Evidence in central Mexico suggests corn was used there about 7000 years ago. Various Native American tribes shared their knowledge of corn, also known as maize, with early European settlers saving many from starvation. Early American colonists ground dried corn as meal for flour to use in porridge, cake and bread. Sweet corn, served as “corn on the cob,” was not developed until the 1700s.

Along with wheat and rice, corn is one of the world’s major grain crops and the largest grain crop grown in the US. About 9% of all the corn is used to produce food for humans: corn meal, cooking oils, margarine, corn syrups and sweeteners (fructose). About 64% of all corn is used as feed for livestock. Corn is harvested for either grain or silage with most of the grain going to dairies, animal feeding operations and poultry operations. Corncobs have been used in the manufacturing of nylon fibers and as a source for producing degradable plastics. Ethanol, made from corn, is a renewable fuel used in today’s cars.

Corn is pollinated by wind and is typically planted in 30-inch rows. A single seed, or kernel, of corn may produce a plant which yields more than 600 kernels of corn per ear. Approximately 22,000 to 35,000 individual plants may be grown on an acre of land. Hybrid corn is developed to produce from one to two ears per plant. More than 80 million acres of the heartland are planted in corn each year.

After the corn is harvested, the farmer begins to prepare the soil for the next season by mixing in nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus with some form of tillage (breaking up soil) to incorporate them. In the spring, the farmer will do a light tillage pass to create smooth bedding for planting. When the ground temperature is ready (50°F and expected to rise), the farmer will plant and add fertilizer 2 inches deeper and 2 inches to the side of the kernels to help the seeds get a healthy start. After the seed is planted, most farmers will spray a pre-emergent herbicide to prohibit weed growth. When seedlings emerge and grow the farmer will inject the soil with some form of nitrogen fertilizer before the v8 (8th leaf development) stage. This spring fertilizer will allow for the plant to “green-up” and establish good photosynthetic activity through harvest. The farmer will continue to scout the crop through maturity for any additional pests and harvest the crop when it is ripe in the fall.

Make Learning Fun

Investing in teachers is a priority therefore the Kansas Corn Commission is committed to providing materials and training to help teachers excel in the classroom.  Teachers who use the Seed to STEM labs in the classroom can request supplies.  Corn seed, corn mash and funding for ethanol plant tours are among the resources you can request.  Teachers who seek to expand their knowledge and skill of teaching are encouraged to seek out a training opportunity.

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