County’s students perform ag research ‘in the field’

Learn under mentorship of scientists, historians at Blue STEM

Senior Madison Patswald (left) and sophomore Skyler Angers grow plants with nitrogenous fish waste in a project using an aquaponics system. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)

By Conrad Dudderar
Staff Writer

EL RENO – High school students are performing authentic research under the mentorship of scientists and historians in a Canadian County agricultural setting close to home.

The Blue STEM AgriLearning Center, 3232 N Jesse Reno Street, is housed at Historic Fort Reno.

The program is a collaborative effort between U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory and Historic Fort Reno.

“Everything that we do here is hands-on,” said Ann Marshall, Blue STEM’S director and education coordinator. “We don’t have textbooks.

“When our high school students come in here, they receive AP (Advanced Placement) credit. If they join us for another year, they get concurrent enrollment at Redlands Community College.”

The purpose of the Blue STEM center is to strengthen ties between the Agricultural Research Service and local school districts to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational opportunities for students.

In Canadian County, Blue STEM students are learning about:

  • Growing plants with nitrogenous fish waste (aquaponics)
  • Technology in education using a “FarmBot” robot to plant and water
  • Monarch butterfly tagging (pollinators)
  • Converting organic earthworm waste to use as fertilizer (vermiculture)
  • Beekeeping and bottling honey
  • Feeding pigs with fodder and grain to analyze meat quality
  • Incubation rates of chicken and quail
  • Soil science and plant science
  • Water quality monitoring
  • Marketing, photography and social media management

“We like students who enjoy learning ‘outside of the box’ and hands-on activities,” Marshall added. “They will work with people ‘in the field’.”

The west Canadian County agrilearning center, which started in April 2015, is now funded entirely through grants.

“We are open to any of the school systems around here,” Blue STEM’s director said. “That is why we’re here. We want to expand and offer STEM education to all of these small schools.”

Over the first three years, Blue STEM grew from three to 20 El Reno students. Since then, the program has serviced students from several other local school districts.

Junior Connor Stevens, Jr. performs a study of catfish. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)
Blue Stem Director Ann Marshall watches as senior David McBee conducts acid rain research. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)


Blue STEM’s headquarters is a restored building on the Fort Reno grounds that once housed commanding officers’ quarters.

The building was constructed in 1876 and remodeled in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The exterior was refurbished in 2012 by Historic Fort Reno, Inc. and the interior was renovated in 2014 through a federal grant.

Fort Reno began as a military camp in 1874 in the Indian War Era.

Today, the Blue Stem property features a 5,000 square-foot-garden and a full acre where students propagate fruit and vegetables to sell at the farmers market.

Director Marshall stressed the importance of STEM education to foster critical thinking – which builds tomorrow’s problem solvers and innovators.

Students who develop their capabilities in STEM classes at advanced levels are more likely to succeed in today’s information-based and highly technological society, according to the National Science Foundation.

In fact, people with STEM occupations out-earn those in non-STEM fields by 12-30% across all education levels.

“This year, we have 24 students,” said Blue STEM administrative director Kristy K. Ehlers, PhD. “We have multiple classes that meet Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday.

“Over the eight years, we’ve had about 120 kids.”

The Blue STEM class is incorporated into these students’ daily high school schedules. Sophomores, juniors and seniors are part of this year’s group.

“They have to come four days a week, which is usually two hours, two days a week,” said Ehlers, El Reno Public Schools’ director of school partnerships and special projects.

The research is extensive, Marshall pointed out.

“We do a real ‘deep dive’,” she said. “Some of our students do research alongside USDA scientists. They’re coming from high schools, learning how to write a scientific paper and crunch data.”

Blue Stem provides more than hands-on science and history experimental research classes.

The center also hosts outdoor education exploration days, STEM camps, family science nights, informational workshops, and teacher professional development.

Retired USDA director Dr. Jean Steiner named the center Blue Stem.

“Blue Stem is a native prairie grass, and we are one of two tall grass prairies here in the State of Oklahoma,” Marshall explained. “The other is in Osage County.”

For more information about Canadian County’s Blue Stem AgriLearning Center, call (405) 208-2468 or e-mail

The Blue Stem AgriLearning Center program is led by administrative director Kristy K. Ehlers, PhD (left) and director/education coordinator Ann Marshall. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)
Senior Emma Patswald and junior Zac Johnson work with the FarmBot, a robot that utilizes technology to plant and water. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)