South Eastern Middle School West sixth-graders Blake Hubert, left, and Alex King witness the results of their experiment turning corn starch into colored
South Eastern Middle School West sixth-graders Blake Hubert, left, and Alex King witness the results of their experiment turning corn starch into colored plastic during a recent visit from the Mobile Agriculture Education Science Lab. (Mollie Durkin photo)

South Eastern Middle School West students gathered in a trailer outside the school at scientific work stations.

Armed with measuring instruments, corn starch and food coloring, pairs of students mixed and massaged goopy concoctions in plastic bags.

The 40-foot trailer was unusual, with agricultural facts and diagrams flanked on each side of it. The instructor, Ruth Smith, paced past the sixth-graders' 12 work stations, addressing them as "scientists."

A volunteer heated up the students' goop-filled bags in a microwave, and they came back with a familiar look: The students had made colored plastic. Smith then showed the students biodegradable mugs and pens that were made from the same kind of corn-based plastic.

That was just one lesson as part of the Mobile Agriculture Education Science Lab -- or the "ag lab," for short.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and the Pennsylvania Friends of Agriculture Foundation celebrated the initiative's 10th year at South Eastern last week. In that time, the ag lab has reached more than 556,000 students in the state.

The school has hosted an ag lab visit during eight of those 10 years.

How it works: During a weeklong visit, a certified instructor teaches six 50-minute classes each day. The lab conducts a hands-on learning experience outside the classroom, focusing on healthy eating, healthy living and environmental issues.

Six labs travel throughout the state and contain 30 different curricula that schools may choose from.

The program makes for a good learning experience, said sixth-grade science teacher Jeff Halterman.

"The experiments themselves are very hands-on," he said, noting how students made plastic in the last session. "That was a really neat experience for them."

The students also seem to be pleased with it.

"When we go to the ag lab, each time it's a different thing," said sixth-grader Andrea Wolf. "It's different than being in the classroom."

"We've gotten to take home stuff we've made every year," added sixth-grader Steven Kisamore.

The program has also visited other school districts in the county, such as Southern, Red Lion and Dallastown.

The cost for a week-long visit is $2,500, and some farm bureaus and businesses offer sponsorships to help fund the program.

-- Reach Mollie Durkin at mdurkin@yorkdispatch.com.