Meet The Fellows - Tanya Novakowski
Grow with Google and the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture have selected the Farm Bureau Foundation Fellows, who will create lessons that make digital skills and agricultural literacy more accessible to students across the country, with a focus on rural classrooms.The Fellows will focus on equipping rural students with classroom and career-focused digital skills while introducing students across the country to fundamental agricultural concepts.
Meet Tanya Novakowski:
Tanya Novakowski grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a family of eight. Her dad was an engineer in the aerospace industry and her mom raised the kids and helped maintain the family's large garden. She and her siblings helped out picking corn, breaking beans, canning vegetables, and making sauerkraut. But for Tanya, gardening seemed like a chore — and certainly not something that could be a career.
Teaching, though, was something Tanya wanted to pursue from an early age. “I was surrounded by teachers in my neighborhood,” she says. School was the heart of the rural community, where everyone knew and looked out for each other. To become a teacher, Tanya imagined herself going to college in the city and leaving country life behind. She earned her B.A. in elementary education at University of North Carolina Wilmington, then sought employment in the region.
“My first interview was in Rose Hill [NC],” she recalls. “It was behind a turkey hatchery. I thought, ‘I can’t teach here. It’s too much like home in Pennsylvania.’” Despite her reservations, she decided to give Rose Hill a shot. That was 23 years ago.
“Now, I love it here,” says Tanya, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Rose Hill-Magnolia Elementary School. The school provides Title 1 services to students from low-income families, including those of transient and migrant workers. “Most of our students’ families work in agriculture, either at one of the processing plants or on the farms,” Tanya says. “Agriculture is everything here.”
Growing up in the 1980s, Tanya didn’t have agricultural classes in school. She realized what was missing in her own childhood was someone to teach her about the wonder and opportunities the rural community holds — and how agriculture is a multifaceted industry with well-paying jobs to suit many different skill sets. She committed to engaging her students in agricultural education combined with digital learning.
Tanya’s journey to teaching AgTech began in 2018. Inspired by her father, Tanya was accepted into Nuggets On Mars, a K-8 teacher STEM-Ag professional development program. She was drawn in by the idea that her students would be the generation to explore Mars–but first, they’d need to figure out how to grow food in space. This experience opened her eyes to the importance of agriculture in everything we do, “from the fields to the board room” and even in space. She wanted her students to see and appreciate the richness — and the opportunity — in the environment around them.
Since then, Tanya has become a champion for agriculture education. “We’ve come down to Earth to bring in more hands-on agriculture,” she says. Tanya has helped bring in more than $100K in funding for classroom AgTech projects, including raising chickens and collecting eggs, caring for honeybees and gathering honey, growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables for home cooking, and installing solar energy to power agriculture projects.
She combines digital learning with hands-on agriculture lessons through virtual field trips to show students different places and possibilities for AgTech careers. She is teaching them skills that will help them navigate the world and be competitive in the job market.
"We've got to find that interest, that spark, that's going to encourage students to want to be successful,” Tanya says. “Once students find out what they're passionate about and teachers figure out what motivates students, then they're going to want to come to school, to learn, and to be successful.” In 2022, Tanya was named North Carolina Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year.
As a Farm Bureau Foundation Fellow, Tanya is working with Grow with Google to develop a place-based curriculum that incorporates agriculture, technology, and digital skills into a lesson on Google’s Applied Digital Skills platform.
“It’s a whole new world, and we need to teach kids to be problem-solvers,” Tanya shares. “The pandemic taught us, if we run out of food, what are we going to do? If we don’t protect the pollinators, we won’t have food. AgTech education gives students the tools to adapt.” Tanya looks forward to helping the next generation discover their passion for agriculture and gain the AgTech skills needed to solve the world’s challenges.