Katie Buckley ’04, M.S. ’12, grew up on a farm north of Springfield in Greenview.

Although she was raised around livestock and recalls riding in the tractor with her dad when she was in grade school, Buckley did not expect to create a future revolving around educating youth on agriculture using STEM concepts.

This past December, Buckley’s work with her students earned her the 2019 Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom (IAITC) Teacher of the Year award during the Illinois Farm Bureau’s annual meeting. The IAITC is a program that provides educational resources, training, and support for classroom teachers throughout the state related to agriculture.

“It’s awesome to represent my school and county,” Buckley said. “McLean County Farm Bureau has been very supportive of my teaching and learning.”

Buckley received an undergraduate degree in special education and a master’s degree in school social work. Heavily involved with Habitat and Humanity and Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity, the skills and the friendships built through those opportunities were her favorite parts of being at Illinois State.

Although she holds many memories of her time in Normal close to her heart, she also remembers times that were tough.

“My undergrad was rough,” she shared. “There was a point in time I wasn’t sure I was going to graduate. I persevered though and ended up graduating and getting a job and was one of the first teachers in my class to be hired.”

three people smiling, middle person wearing graduation apparel

Katie Buckley with her parents after receiving her bachelor’s degree at Illinois State.

Buckley learned a lot from her experience and was inspired by her family and her aspirations to go back for a master’s degree. Unforeseen circumstances in Buckley’s pregnancy forced her to have an emergency surgery that took her away from her finals during her master’s degree. But with professors from the School of Social Work who were understanding and empathetic, she was able to succeed and graduate on time.

“I loved the staff and their ability to understand the rigor of college,” said Buckley. “As older adults, some with families, they understood, and I am so grateful for that.”

Upon obtaining her master’s degree, Buckley became a teacher in LeRoy at the same school she still teaches at. She was asked to teach aquaponics, but realized she didn’t know a lot about it. This was her first STEM class.

STEM curriculum is based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The program integrates all four into cohesive learning based on real-world applications.

Buckley’s first STEM course in aquaponics, a cycle between plants and fish, encouraged her to do research for the sake of her own learning and her students. The result was a class project that used a fish tank, plastic shoebox, and rocks.

Working together, the class and Buckley documented their progress on Twitter, winning them the Purple Plow Challenge. The challenge is a project put on by the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture that encourages students grades five through 12, to research scenarios related to food, hunger, and sustainability by building their own prototypes to solve the defined problem. The prize included a 3D printer for her classroom along with $100.

“That started it,” Buckley said. “Now I look at what the math and science departments are teaching and design projects based on what the students already know. Then I apply it to what they’re doing.”

Integrating multiple STEM activities into both junior high and high school curriculum, Buckley recognizes her interesting and unique role in the district, but she takes pride in her teaching style that is atypical to what is done in a normal classroom.

“They’re unique classes in the sense that a lot of my students don’t love science,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for those students who don’t need science to succeed. They can take my class, learn, and apply what they learn to something completely different.”

Her classroom philosophy uses group communication skills, problem-solving, and organization strategies and tactics.

“They all have to work together to determine everything that we need,” Buckley said. “All of our projects are done at no cost to whoever we send it to, and we pay with everything through a grant.”

a teacher working on project with five students

Katie Buckley with several of her students working with concepts of agriculture and STEM.

Having been extremely successful in her methods of teaching, Buckley has received several grants and awards that go toward her curriculum and semester projects for her students. One of these grants included the Maitland Grant, which allowed Buckley’s classroom three high-end drones for land surveying and enough money to purchase robots to examine precision in agriculture. She also won the Purple Plow Challenge once more, which gave her another 3D printer and another $100.

Although grants and prize money have helped Buckley fund new technology for her classroom, she also wants her students to look at the world and agriculture from a broader perspective.

“Students need to understand the difference between farming and agriculture,” she said. “It’s more than crops and animals. We need people to do other things and realize that it is more than just being a farmer.”

An advocate for local farmers and sustainability, Buckley is sure to incorporate this understanding into what she teaches to her students. From understanding where our food and fuel come from, to knowing the state of our planet, she wants her students to look beyond preconceived notions. Buckley herself tries to do the same.

“The way of thinking and understanding is different for every kid,” Buckley said. “My main goal is for my students to seek understanding, and I do my best every day to leave my bias at the door.”

Connecting with her students is a top priority when teaching. Interacting with over 75 kids each day can be a challenge, but Buckley does not let that get in the way of her curriculum. As teaching is a huge part of her life, she even works with Illinois State undergraduate students during their field-based practicums.

“I like getting to know my kids and the people I work with,” Buckley said. “Making that connection and building a relationship helps me be a better teacher and learner.”

Buckley proclaimed that she is not only a proud Redbird alumna but also a lifelong learner, having only four semesters since 1999 that she was not enrolled in a class at Illinois State. Her work with Illinois State undergraduate student-teachers allows her to continue learning. Not only has Buckley used her affiliation with Illinois State to her lifelong learning advantage, but she has also had the opportunity to visit field operations and talk with experts to enhance her knowledge. One of her grants allowed her to visit the largest cattle operation in Oregon, which gave her a fresh perspective she had never been exposed to before.

As one of the few primary and high school agriculture STEM educators, Buckley worries that the field is dying out.

“As someone who is not a traditional agriculture teacher, as a country we are going to be hard-pressed to find teachers for this field within the next five or 10 years,” said. “We’re about at the end of the baby boomers so the large population is leaving, and we need to figure out how to fill those gaps.”

“We can’t let that happen,” she added. “It is important for students to see the importance of agriculture, know that things are changing, and see that agriculture is at the root of everything.”

It is never too late to learn about agriculture and apply STEM concepts to our own lives. Doing so just might save our planet and create better lives for all people.

“When we learn together, it empowers the younger generation too.”