With funding from Microsoft, CSIRO piloted Microsoft Farmbeats, an initiative wherein Years 9 and 10 students participate in a hands-on AI sustainable learning experience, playing smart farming techniques to food production.
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.
Teachers also received specialised professional development helping them to use the technology to support their students.
Schools were given FarmBeats kits featuring a Raspberry Pi device as well as soil moisture, light, ambient temperature, and humidity sensors to be used in student projects.
Real data, real impact
Using the Indra platform, students gained access to historical data from local areas to examine the changes in climate over time to consider how those changes impact current and future growing conditions.
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 Climate Services for Agriculture (CSA) digital platform developed by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology to deliver predicted climate information at a 5 km² resolution.
Information 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 with the Microsoft FarmBeats kit.
With the CSA platform, students understood 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.
These technological advantages allowed students 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,” says CSIRO director education and outreach Ruth Carr.
Pioneering FarmBeats for students
“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,” says Christ Church Grammar School computer science teacher Graham Nolan.
“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,” says Warwick Senior High School science teacher Kiara Marzohl.
“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,” says Caritas College South Australia STEM teacher Nathan O’Brien.
“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,” says Microsoft ANZ director of education Tiffany Wright.
Microsoft Australia says digital agriculture will be critical to meet the needs of a global population estimated to top nine billion people by 2050.