Target Grade Level / Age Range:

6-8 grade

Estimated Time:

45 minutes


Not all challenges in agriculture are obvious. Some of them come from below. In this activity, students will explore a real-world challenge engineers are trying to tackle and will design their own solutions.


  • Flip chart paper
  • Markers

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Engineering: the application of science and math to solve problems.
  • Pest: an organism that causes damage to plants, humans, structures, and other creatures, including crops that are grown for food.
  • Pheromones: a chemical substance produced and released into the environment by an animal, especially a mammal or an insect, affecting the behavior or physiology of others of its species. A pheromone is a chemical signature that is usually sent by one animal to another which usually brings about or elicits a response in the other animal of the same species. Usually and many cases, the pheromone are specie-specific since only the animals belonging to the same species can understand the message and respond to the message. Therefore, this means that if a rodent uses a pheromone, snakes cannot perceive the meaning. Pheromone has the ability to change the reaction of an organism once it has received the message.

Background – Agricultural Connections (what would a teacher need to know to be able to teach this content)

Just like in the American Midwest like in Iowa, in Brazil, Argentina, and other South American countries there is a lot of corn and soybeans that are grown. Typically, a farmer will prepare the field. Sometimes this means spraying weeds, sometimes it means tilling the soil, sometimes it means applying fertilizers, or any combination of those practices. Then farmers will use an implement called a planter and attach it to the tractor. The planter has a large tank of seeds mounted on to it that are fed into hoses. Each hose delivers a seed down to the ground. As the tractor pulls the planter across the field, the planter creates a seedbed, delivers the seed to the ground and then closes the seedbed by covering it with soil. Planters can be calibrated to plant seeds at a certain depth in the soil and with specific spacings between the seeds. Depending on the size, planters might plant anywhere from 12 to 48 rows of corn or soybeans at one time. To do this, farmers need to drive the tractor and planter back and forth across the field in an orderly fashion. This maximizes the area of ground that has been planted and ensures that the ground isn’t overlapped and planted more than once.

As seeds start to grow, scientists – specifically agronomists – walk the fields to check on the plants and see how they are doing. They try to identify any problems like nutrient deficiencies, insect problems, weed problems, fungi problems, etc. These agronomists might take random samples to test. To guarantee random and representative samples from the field they look at the field as a grid. They walk the field in an orderly way and then might take a sample every 100 feet or some other regular interval.

When the field is bare, it is easy to mark holes or other obstacles with temporary flags or other markers. But when plants grow tall, they obscure the ground and it is hard to see potential hazards underfoot. Because agronomists walk across the field, they have the potential of stepping into holes and twisting an ankle, breaking their leg, or otherwise injure themselves. Tractors driving across the field might also be damaged. If the holes are big or if there is an underground den, the soil could collapse into a sinkhole. A tractor might tilt a whole wheel into a hole as it collapses.

In the American Midwest, many animals might dig in fields to create holes or dens to live in. These animals, while native to the Midwest, are considered pests to farmers. Digging animals may include skunks, badgers, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and coyotes. In South America, one prevalent pest in corn and soybean fields are armadillos. Armadillos are native to Brazil and Argentina and are known for digging holes and dens in the same fields that farmers plant. Armadillo holes and dens are very random and farmers don’t always know where in the field the holes and dens are. As armadillo populations continue to increase, they dig new holes and make new dens to live in. Even marking holes isn’t sufficient as new holes could be continually found.

There are 20 species of armadillos in the Americas and five of those species can be found in Brazil and Argentina. The three-banded armadillo is considered a vulnerable species from the IUCN Red List ( However, the three-banded armadillo is not known for digging. It is usually the six-banded armadillo, giant armadillo, or another digging species of armadillos that is causing problems for Brazilian and Argentinian farmers. See the armadillo fact sheet for more information.

Interest Approach – Engagement (what will you do to engage students at the beginning of the lesson)

Agriculture and farming are rarely smooth sailing. Challenges come up each day throughout the growing season. One challenge in farming is pests. Ask students what the word “pest” means to farmers.

  • An agricultural pest is any organism living and growing where it is not wanted that causes damage to livestock and crops are grown for food. Pests include insects, animals, weeds, fungi, and diseases.     

Brainstorm a list of pests that may damage field corn in Iowa.

  • Common corn pests in Iowa include weeds (thistle, bindweed, curly dock, etc)   insects (cutworms, corn ear worms, Japanese beetles), and diseases (leaf blight, rust, etc.).  Deer, birds, and rabbits damage corn too, but they do not cause significant yield loss.


  1. Introduce to students to the Brazilian armadillo problem:
    1. Explain that field corn is also grown in South American countries like Brazil and Argentina. Like in Iowa, farmers there use tractors and planters to plant rows of seeds in large fields. But South American farmers have to deal with a pest that we do not have in Iowa. the Brazilian Armadillo.  
    2. Today, we’re going to talk about the problems armadillos cause for farmers in South America, and it’s going to be your job to find solutions to those problems.
  2. Play this video about armadillos in gardens. As students watch, ask them to think about how solving this problem in a garden would be different than solving it in a large farm field. 
  3. Now, discuss what problems armadillos might cause in a large field of corn.  
    1. Armadillos dig holes wherever they go searching for insects to eat. Underneath those small holes are likely large burrows. When the field is bare, it’s easy to mark holes or other obstacles with temporary flags or other markers. But when plants grow tall, they obscure the ground and it’s hard to see potential hazards underfoot. Because agronomists walk across the field, they have the potential of stepping into holes and twisting an ankle, or otherwise injure themselves. Tractors driving across the field might also be damaged. If the holes are big or if there is an underground animal den, the soil could collapse into a sink hole. 
    2. How might farmers and agricultural companies deal with the problem? Do you think the solutions for the garden (traps, fence) work in a cornfield?
  4. Break students into small groups of 4-5. Provide each group with markers and a piece of flip chart paper. The students will have 15 minutes to invent a solution to the armadillo problem:
    1. How can we get rid of the holes? How can we stop the armadillos from digging in the fields?
    2. Can we figure out a way to mark the holes so that people and tractors don’t fall into them?
  5. Using the notepad paper, students can sketch out their idea, write ideas, or just use it as a notepad to capture the brainstorm. After 5 minutes of work time, reveal to the students that they cannot kill the armadillos OR significantly alter the ecosystem (i.e. flood the filed, burn the field, etc.). You’ll hear a big “ aggghh." Because armadillos are easily captured, the species is threatened by hunting pressures and habitat loss. It is considered a vulnerable species and warrants protection. Remind students that in real life, requirements and variables change when learning more about a problem. Engineers must go back to the drawing board at times and this is encouraged.
  6. After another 5 minutes of work time, either rwatch the 3 Banded Armadillo video: and pass out the Armadillo fact sheet, OR have them conduct their own independent research using some of the links provided in the suggested companion resources section or other resources they find.
  7. After earning more about armadillos, allow for another 5 to 10 minutes of work time to find a solution to the problem. After the time has elapsed, have each group identify a speaker. Allow each group to present their solutions to the class. Be sure to challenge their thinking by asking good questions like:
    1. If we are talking about hundreds or thousands of acres and an acre is about the size of a football field, how much do you think your solution would cost to implement?” They don’t need to know the answers, but they should think critically and try to articulate how they would approach answering the question or mitigating the challenge.
    2. Will this solution address all five species of armadillos or only one?
    3. Will this solution alter the environment?
    4. Will this solution endanger the armadillos?
  8. After each group has presented, explain that engineers at a seed corn company were tasked with figuring out how to solve the problem of armadillos in the company’s research fields. Here are the solutions they considered and the challenges they ran into.
    1. Body heat/temperature sensors from drones can tell where the armadillos are, but not where they have been looking for food.
    2. LiDAR (light and radar): looks for bare spots in the field where plants aren’t growing (like above an armadillo den)
    3. Build a barrier (fence) – size, price, labor
    4. Pheromones – good smells to draw them out of the field or bad smells to repel them from the field.
  9. Explain that the seed company has not solved the problem yet because it is so complex. Conclude by reminding students that engineers solve problems through the applications of science and math. It often it takes years and lots of trial and error to find viable solutions. Challenge students to look around their world and explore solutions for improving tasks and solving problems.
  10. After hearing all of the presentations and hearing about the solutions that the engineers came up with, have students vote on which solution they think will work best.


Did You Know? (Ag facts)

  • In Iowa and throughout the Midwest, animals that dig holes in fields are of most concern on terraces. When holes are dug into terraces, it provides a path for water to flow and will eventually erode the terrace. An eroded terrace will have to be rebuilt and replanted.
  • Skunks, badgers, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and coyotes might all dig holes in field terraces.
  • Terraces are constructed in fields to slow the movement of water and ultimately help reduce soil erosion.

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)

  • Spraining an ankle or breaking a leg from stepping into an animal den or hole is one risk farmers face. Research what other safety and health risks that farmers might face on the job. Write a paper, create a video, or develop a poster to identify one or more risks and how farmers can mitigate the risks or otherwise protect themselves.
  • What other animals might be considered pests to farmers (in the U.S. or elsewhere)? How have farmers learned to deal with these pests? Consider Elephants vs. Bees or Pick one pest species and create a how-to manual for farmers on how to best deal with the pest.

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)




Will Fett, Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation
Val Bayes, Monsanto

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • T1.6-8.a. Compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages involved when converting natural ecosystems to agricultural ecosystems
  • T1.6-8.b. Describe benefits and challenges of using conservation practices for natural resources (e.g., soil, water, and forests), in agricultural systems which impact water, air, and soil quality
  • T1.6-8.d. Discuss (from multiple perspectives) land and water use by various groups (i.e., ranchers, farmers, hunters, miners, recreational users, government, etc.), and how each use carries a specific set of benefits and consequences that affect people and the environment
  • T1.6-8.e. Discuss the comparative environmental pros and cons of populations relying on their local and regional resources versus tapping into a global marketplace
  • T2.6-8.c. Identify farm practices for plant protection (e.g., using a pesticide, integrated pest management, cultural practices) and the harvest of safe products for consumers
  • T4.6-8.f. Explain the harmful and beneficial impacts of various organisms related to agricultural production and processing (e.g., harmful bacteria/beneficial bacteria, harmful/beneficial insects) and the technology developed to influence these organisms
  • T4.6-8.i. Provide examples of science and technology used in agricultural systems (e.g., GPS, artificial insemination, biotechnology, soil testing, ethanol production, etc.); explain how they meet our basic needs; and detail their social, economic, and environmental impacts

Iowa Core Standards

  • MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
  • MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  • MS-LS2-1. Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem.
  • MS-LS2-2. Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.
  • MS-LS2-5. Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.*
  • SS.6.16. Utilize and construct geographic representations to explain and analyze regional, environmental, and cultural characteristics.

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