If there is nothing more Nebraskan than the Nebraska State Fair, that’s due in part to special fair features like Nebraska’s Largest Classroom.
The program is a self-guided tour for students in grades K-6 and their teachers. The experiential “classroom” includes hand-picked programming. Wednesday’s activities included “Meet a Farmer” with Midwest Dairy and the UNL Mobile Beef Lab from Nebraska Extension and 4-H. Nebraska Forest Service, Project Learning Tree and Project WET also had programming, “Three Cheers for Trees!”
Students from dozens of schools all over Nebraska took advantage of the special learning experience, including second- and third-graders from Wood River Elementary School. Wood River third grade teacher Trudi Gottlob accompanied her 28 students.
Gottlob said Nebraska’s Largest Classroom can’t be replicated in a traditional classroom.
“Not quite to this degree,” she said. “I appreciate people getting it together so we can do this. It’s fabulous for the kids.”
Brianna Buseman, Nebraska youth meat Extension educator, had a station about cuts of meat in the Raising Nebraska building. She said the goal of her station is to help consumers make the connection between market animals and the meat they eat.
“Today has been a really awesome opportunity to talk to kids in the community about where their food comes from,” Buseman said. “There have been a lot of students. They seem pretty excited to be here.”
The excitement could have been compounded by last year’s coronavirus-caused hiatus, as Nebraska’s Largest Classroom took a pause during the pandemic. Gottlob said Wood River made sure to make up for it.
“Due to COVID the third-graders didn’t get to go last year. The second-graders came yesterday and third grade came today,” she said.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic pause, the fair welcomed students from more than 100 schools — just short of 4,000 students and their adults — for the three-day event.
Sarah Polak, experience coordinator for Raising Nebraska, said providing students like those from Wood River with a fun, educational experience is important.
“What we’re hearing is they are so excited to be here,” Polak said. “To be able to have a fun and educational experience with their friends is something we’re very proud to offer.”
Much of that fun comes from partnerships with organizations such as Midwest Dairy and Nebraska Forest Service, among many others, she said.
“What’s so unique is the type of experience we offer youth that they may not get anywhere else,” Polak said. “Having those partners here is hugely important because they help promote their organizations and it’s a great way to reach school kids and share information.”
Having Raising Nebraska — and the fair in general — at her students’ disposal as a classroom has offered something for all of her students, Gottlob said.
“Some of them have loved the animals. Some of them said lunch was the best. Some of them have enjoyed this Nebraska stuff,” she said as her students hopped on an extra-large, detailed floor map of Nebraska.
“We got to watch our band march today and some of the kids loved watching. There hasn’t been a unanimous thing for like, we all want to do that again,” Gottlob said.
Groups need not register for Nebraska’s Largest Classroom, Polak said. “There are some special perks to signing up, but you don’t have to.”
The state’s largest classroom has plenty to offer, whether a group signed up or not, Gottlob said.
“Not all kids get to travel and do some of these things,” she said. “Not all kids are up on the farm, so they got to learn some of those things that many of our students already know. But I have some that say, ‘No, I’ve never seen this.’ This is so fun for them.”
Ultimately, an exciting, Nebraska-style learning experience is what Nebraska’s Largest Classroom is all about, Polak said. “It’s just a fun atmosphere.”
Nebraska’s Largest Classroom continues today, with students from more schools visiting the Nebraska State Fair.
Jessica Votipka is the education reporter at the Grand Island Independent. She can be reached at 308-381-5420.