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Samantha Hooker examined the digital garden on the screen before her, circling around a birdhouse, arbor and eastern redbud tree she had placed within it, in addition to a number of other plants.

Next to her, fellow seventh-grader Jake Over similarly studied his own landscape, whose only likeness seemed to lie in the birdhouse he had also chosen.

The students had designed the gardens as part of their agriscience class at Baltimore County's Hereford Middle School. They did so in a new computer lab paid for in part by a $10,000 donation from the Baltimore County Farm Bureau - and with professional landscape-design software recently purchased with about $7,000 from the school's PTA.

"It's been a very exciting instructional tool in the middle-school agriscience program. The students are very excited to use the lab," said Rhonda D. Hoyman, the district's technical programs supervisor. "It brings an extra dimension to the program that we normally wouldn't have, and it really does help us to excite and enrich the student learning experience."

Hereford's is the only middle-school agriscience program in the state. About 80 percent of students participate in it, said Fred Doepkens, the school's agriscience department chair. The department aims to expose students to the range of possibilities and potential careers in the field, he said.

Beyond the excitement of using the technology, there is also practicality: Most agricultural careers are not the stereotypical ones people tend to imagine - such as planting and harvesting crops - and many require post-secondary education or advanced skills, said Hoyman and Keith Wills, president of the county farm bureau.

Wills said that most of today's agriculture jobs involve elements such as research, finance and land-use management.

Hereford Middle students have taken to the new software and space quickly, Doepkens said. With animated, 3-D walk-throughs of student designs, it helps provide a real sense of what the kids' projects will look like, Doepkens said - something they found more difficult to visualize with the two-dimensional drawings they previously used. Students can even see what the design will look like at different times of day, giving them insight into where shadows will fall, he added.

"I think it's fun," Samantha, 12, said of the software, which she and her peers are navigating with ease. "It's easier to interact with things than to just learn about them."

And, she added, she now has an even better idea of what landscape architects do.

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