Prairie High School teacher honored with national agricultural award


Prairie High School agriculture teacher Annette Weeks recently received the Ideas Unlimited award at the 2021 National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) conference. 

Weeks was honored with the award because of her work with absorbable water beads.

“The award is for teachers to share an idea that they have or have modified for their classroom with other agriculture teachers,” Weeks said. “I’m grateful that people found value in my idea.”

Weeks’s water bead idea had an inventive origin. She used them to teach experimental designs on topics including bacterial growth, arranged flower freshness and the effects of temperature.

“The water beads were an idea that a student actually gave me in terms of creating some arrangements I needed for a celebration,” she said. “We started talking about what other things we could do with the water beads for science experiments, such as ‘is there a difference in temperature and how fast they rehydrate,’ ‘is there a pH difference,’ ‘is bacterial growth more prevalent in water beads than other arrangement materials?’”

She said the students theorized all of those ideas, but were not able to practice any of them because the school closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she had the students take the water beads home and design their own experiments. 

“It was a good stop gap for 2020 and 2021,” Weeks said.

Some of the experiments involved testing the pH levels by putting the beads in baking soda and lemon juice to test the effects. The water beads are made of a polymer that absorbs water and can grow to about 200 times their original size, according to Weeks. Orbeez is a popular example of a brand. She noted that one downside of the water beads is they are not biodegradable but did say there are some bio-friendly ones out there. Weeks said the water beads could pose an issue in landfills and said people should never throw them in the sink since they can clog the drain once they grow in size. However, they do make a good stress ball, she said.

“If you are a stress ball person and put them into a baggie, that’s one way you can use them,” Weeks said. “It’s very tactile, very sensory-oriented, and students have enjoyed doing that.”

Weeks said her experience at the NAAE conference was fantastic and that it felt “really cool” to present her idea to other teachers around the nation. She also said it was nice to see everyone in-person and to learn from others. 

“One of the first things I attended was about work-life balance and being the best teacher that I can be by making sure that I maintain priorities and boundaries,” she said.

Other ideas Weeks observed at the conference included sand slides. A teacher talked about how she collects sands from around the country and then shares its origins with the students as they study the parent material and observe what it looks like. 

In addition to agriculture, Weeks teaches about horticulture, animal science, natural resources, greenhouse management, and plant science. Some of the curriculum entails “teaching about commodities, where food comes from, how food continues to be produced, and problem-solving for the future,” Weeks said. 

Although climate change doesn’t play a major factor in her lessons, she said the class does touch on how it affects the weather and land. For example, she talks about how to prepare a garden for the first frost of the winter and what animals need when they transition into cold weather.

The NAAE Convention was sponsored by National Geographic Learning and Cengage Learning. Members submitted 242 applications for the awards from 41 states. 


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