Henderson County UT Extension Leader Named STEM Director for Lone Oaks Farm
Ron Blair (left) helps a student weigh a fish at a lake on the University of Tennessee's Lone Oaks Farm. Blair is the new STEM Director for the facility. (Photo by C. Denney, courtesy UTIA)
By Charles Denney
Middleton, Tenn. – “Grab. Grab. Got her?” Ron Blair asks 4-Her Blessing Thompson, a middle school student from Decatur County. Blessing was among a group of campers who got a lesson in science and nature from the new director of the STEM program at Lone Oaks Farm: Ron Blair.
Ron Blair, UT Extension director for Henderson County, was named to the position by the University of Tennessee Extension administration. He takes over programming in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math at Lone Oaks, the new campus in West Tennessee that will welcome K-12 students from across the nation.
Blair has worked for UT Extension as a county director, agricultural agent and 4-H leader, now in his 38th year with the organization. He started in Henry County, and has been director in Henderson County nearly 30 years. The great outdoors is a particular interest for Blair. He’s served as one of UT Extension’s statewide pond specialists, and led O.W.L.S. camp for kids, which stands for “Outdoor, Wildlife, Leadership and Service.”
At Lone Oaks Farm, Blair will develop activities with an emphasis on educational opportunities involving the area’s lakes, forests and fields. Lone Oaks Farm is a stunning tract of 1,200 acres in Hardeman County. It’s also a working farm with 90 head of cattle, a few chickens, and gardens.
“One of the big opportunities kids have is they get to come to a working farm, a safe environment with beautiful natural resources,” Blair says. “We want every young person who comes here to leave a mark at Lone Oaks.”
The STEM program at Lone Oaks Farm is a partnership with the Hardeman County schools. Educators want kids to have fun learning here, but on a more serious note, they are preparing them for the future. The STEM-related jobs of tomorrow should pay well.
“This opportunity to use this facility provides a super-fast on ramp to get kids engaged in hands-on activities that extend the classroom from the textbook out to what real careers are,” says Warner Ross, Superintendent in Hardeman County.
“These middle school children we're running through these camps will be our next generation going to work in these STEM activities and STEM careers, and we hope to give them a good base for that, to look forward to something in their future,” says Gary Rodgers, UT Extension Director for Hardeman County.
This hot day, Blair took campers out on the Lone Oaks’ lake in UT Extension’s “Shock Boat.” The boat sends out a harmless electric current into the water, momentarily stunning the fish so they can be scooped up by net or by hand. Later campers measure the fish, and then release them back into the lake.
“We’re doing a math lesson on the ‘Shock Boat’ where we take unbiased samples, assimilate that into data, and these young people can make recommendations based on it,” Blair says. “What we’re trying to do at Lone Oaks is connect people to agriculture, where their food comes from, and that science is pretty cool.”
“We are so excited about the potential of this program to increase the pipeline of students entering STEM careers,” says Dr. Ben West, with UT Extension and Director of Lone Oaks Farm. “By working with public, private, and home school teachers from across the mid-south, we think that over 30,000 students will visit Lone Oaks Farm each year, and be exposed to how STEM works in the real world. It will be a transformational program for the region.”
Plans are underway at Lone Oaks to utilize existing buildings for STEM programs, and to build new cabins and other facilities to host more students in the future. Already the site includes a livestock and equestrian area, a museum and a lodge. The timetable to build the cabins is roughly three years away, but already Lone Oaks is hosting students.
The Tennessee General Assembly approved funding for Lone Oaks in 2015, and according to a study by the UT Center for Sustainable Business and Development, the facility could have an economic impact of nearly $50 million for the region. Already more than $4 million has been gifted or pledged for the project. Lone Oaks Farm will also be used as a conference center for organizational retreats and meetings by non-profits and governmental organizations.
Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu.
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