It was the lettuce, ordinary bibb lettuce found in any grocery store, that caused so much excitement recently in a group of middle school students.
The lettuce is growing in a greenhouse-turned-classroom at Hereford Middle School.
Students there are learning how to grow the lettuce in an agriscience class taught by Frederick H. Doepkens. The study of agricultural science and technology, Mr. Doepkens said, is not just for farmers.
"A lot of students come in here and think that agriculture is just about farming. It's about hydroponics, animal science . . . a wide variety of things," said Mr. Doepkens, who was named as 1991 Maryland Agriscience Teacher of the Year by the National Future Farmers Association.
One recent afternoon, 19 enthusiastic students in Mr. Doepkens' class studied the small lettuce leaves they had planted in the greenhouse adjacent to their classroom. Much of the talk centered around whose leaves were the biggest.
After the lettuce plants have been nurtured and matured, they will be wrapped up in plastic -- just as they would in a grocery store -- and sent home with the students.
The students are learning how to cultivate plants, how disease can affect plants, and what effects other factors such as light will have on them. "We are looking at production from start to finish," Mr. Doepkens said.
Hereford is the only middle school in Maryland offering a comprehensive class in agriscience, school administrators said. It has been offered since 1984, and Hereford Middle was chosen because of the semi-rural community where it is located.
Most middle school students learn about agriculture when they take other technical education classes. In high school, students in technical education focus on specific careers in agriculture.
"Fred's program is a model for the country," said Karl Gettle, manager of the school system's vocational technical education department. "The agricultural business is big in America," Dr. Gettle said.
And as farmland shrinks in America, he said, it is important to learn how technology plays a part in the agricultural business. "We are trying to acquaint young people with that need," Dr. Gettle said.
None of a sampling of students in the class who were interviewed said they actually wanted to grow up to be a farmer. Yet, all of them said they enjoyed the class, most citing as reasons its hands-on approach and the use of tools in the course.
Andrew Kohne, 13, eventually wants to be an engineer. "He makes learning and stuff fun," Andrew said of his teacher. "And I like using the power tools."
Kirk Sonnefeld, 12, wants to be an architect. The drawing that he has done in the class appeals to him. "It's really like an engineering class," he said.
The students got to use tools and their design skills when they built model tractors as a class project. Then, divided into groups, they held tractor pull contests.
It was a lesson in horsepower, mechanical advantage, cooperative learning and problem solving, Mr. Doepkens said -- all of which, he noted, is a part of learning agriscience.
LTC Kim Friday, 13, thrived on the competition of the tractor pulls. "Everybody got to race against everybody," she said. "I like the challenge."