Harford County's high school graduation season begins Wednesday, and among the 278 seniors who will receive their diplomas during North Harford High School's commencement ceremony at APGFCU Area will be 35 boys and girls who are the first to complete the school's Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences magnet program.
In all, 2,890 Harford County Public Schools seniors will be graduating at ceremonies through June 6. Local private high schools are also holding their commencement ceremonies in the same period.
The newest Harford County Public Schools magnet program started four years ago. Some of the graduating seniors recently reflected on what they have gained from the program during that time.
"We've all been together all four years," Juliane Caughron, 17, said.
Juliane, along with her fellow seniors Kimball Bryan, 17, Becca Simon, 18, Sabrina Frink, 17, and Patrick Huff, 17, spoke about their experiences while on a portion of the Pylesville campus dotted with barns, animal pens and a pond stocked with fish where they conduct their studies.
They also have a stream and a wetland area, plus a greenhouse for plant studies, according to Greg Murrell, a teacher specialist at North Harford who runs the program.
"Most schools and agriculture programs in the state of Maryland don't have those types of facilities, and that just lends itself to a quality program," Murrell said.
The students are divided into three clusters: large animal/equine sciences, plant sciences and natural resources sciences.
"I've always had experience with large animals, and I always knew I wanted to go into the [animal] medical field, and this was the closest thing to it at North Harford," Kimball said of the animal sciences cluster.
Kimball and Patrick, who is also in the animal sciences cluster, have grown up on farms.
Patrick expects to take over the Street farm run by his father and grandfather.
"After they're gone, I'm going to have to learn how to manage everything, and it will just give me a jump start on everything, how to make things come together," he said.
There are about 180 students in the magnet program, said Murrell, who thanked the teachers – animal science teacher Jackie Smith, plant science instructor Katie Rae Warner and natural resources teacher Laura O'Leary – for their commitment to the program.
Students in the natural resources cluster study wetlands and aquatics, as well as wildlife management.
Juliane, who is one of those students, said she wants to get into the scientific research field and study marine biology in college.
"Just learning the process and how to put together a write-up and starting to make connections in that field," she replied when asked about the benefits of the North Harford program.
North Harford is one of four high schools in Harford County offering magnet programs. The others are the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School, the Global Studies Program/International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Edgewood High School and the varied programs offered by Harford Technical High School in Bel Air.
More information on magnet programs can be found on the HCPS website at http://www.hcps.org/Schools/MagnetPrograms/.
Murrell said the North Harford program came about through a partnership of the school system, the county government, the local agricultural community and the University of Maryland.
"It was a partnership to look at the way ag education was being done, and to bring the STEM concepts into agricultural education," he explained.
In the barn, Sabrina showed off Gracie the cow, who has a device implanted that allows the students to view how a cow digests food.
The cow's rumen fluid, which is used to aid digestion, can also be taken out and analyzed to monitor Gracie's health.
Murrell explained that local veterinarians can use the microbes in a healthy cow's rumen fluid to treat sick animals.
"Before I was really skittish with animals, and now I'm more calm with them, and I'm able to work with many different types of animals, and it's just an overall fun program," Sabrina said.
The program's animals, some of which have been donated by local farmers, include horses, cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits and an alpaca.
Students spend time in the classroom and in the field, conducting research. Murrell noted some students have shown animals they care for in farm fairs.
"I really wanted to be an equine scientist when I grow up, so the program has taught me a lot about horses and a lot about livestock animals and how the ag business works," Becca said while working in the barn with Jesse, a former racehorse.
Becca, who plans to study occupational therapy in college, works with a therapeutic horse riding program for children with special needs and plans to create her own therapeutic riding program.
"I think it takes a lot of courage to be first sometimes," Murrell said of the graduating seniors who entered the program during the 2010-2011 school year.
"They did a nice job taking advantage of the unique opportunities that they were given," he added.