A handful of North Middle School students walked into a chicken pen Thursday to rake hay, refill water and tidy the area as part of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics farm.

NMS educators hope this will be the beginning of deeper learning.

The farm started a few months ago when former principal Matthew Tinker, who now works at the Loudon County Schools central office, hatched the idea. A parent donated eggs in the spring, which were then placed in an incubator.

“We put a camera on the incubator when it was getting close to time for them to start hatching and we called it ‘chick cam,’ and so when they started hatching the kids could watch them live from they were at their house — we weren’t in school when in started, so they were able to watch it at their house,” Tinker said. “They could also make comments on it, we put it on a YouTube channel, and they could make comments on there and it was neat to see how many of them were watching and making comments about the chickens, and then they all came in to check on them the next day. They’ve really kind of taken them in just part of the North family and they take good care of them and feed them.”

Foothills Federal Credit Union earlier this month provided fencing and materials to help expand the farm on roughly two acres. A small carport will be brought to the school at some point this month in hopes of making it a barn.

Jodi Lowery, NMS principal, said the school has applied for a $5,000 grant from Good Neighbors Shoppe that would go toward a larger barn and seeding and should be receive word “any day now.”

“The idea going forward is we’ll have the kids help to put the fencing up during their STEM class, build the barn that we have, put it up,” Tinker said. “They’ll have goats, pigs, rabbits and sheep and then we’ll teach them how — maybe some of the smaller cows — and we’ll teach them how what to look for livestock-wise that makes those animals value at market and how to show them, just teaching them a lot of things that will help to build on the ag program when they go to high school.”

Joey Breedlove, STEM teacher, has big plans for the farm.

“As soon as we get the fencing up, Mr. (Bobby) Amburn, he’s a large part of this project and the fact that he was an ag teacher before he became administration is a big help to me because he knows all this. So I’m kind of leaning on him,” Breedlove said. “I’ve never farmed in my life, I’m learning as we go, but I think that he tells me as soon as we get the fencing up then we’re ready for goats. So that’ll be the next phase.”

The farm will allow hands-on learning by having real involvement in the care of the animals and property, he said. That includes each day checking nesting boxes, food and water.

“Once we start getting eggs we’ll move them to the incubator, they’ll track the days on those,” Breedlove said. “Anything from general upkeep to once we get in full swing of the year I’ll use their science standards to teach a lot of the farm things. So anything from cell to organism to some of their small animal biology stuff. ... You would be amazed at the amount of engineering design that the students put in, math calculations. For instance, the hawk net that’s over the top, I had the students calculate the size that we would need because we want to make sure that we got the right-sized one. Not only did we want it to go over the top, but then also come down the sides so they had to incorporate the geometry of that to calculate square footage.

“Anywhere from — and we’ll talk about perimeter sizes when we’re doing fencing,” he added. “One of the things that was most important to me was that they got an idea of how this will translate into when they go to high school, because most of these students will go to Lenoir City and they have a small and large animal class.”

Lowery pointed to the farm being available to Eaton Elementary School. Pre-kindergarten students visited the chicken coop and learned about the letter C.

“It was cute seeing them getting engaged in it because eventually they’ll be our students,” Lowery said.

The barn is another way Lowery believes educators can reach students in a unique way.

“Sometimes our classes would come out to the amphitheater, which we want to include as part of the farm as an outdoor learning space,” she said. “But we wanted them to get outside. It excites them to be outside, it excites them to see something new. It’s out of the traditional classroom, and the middle school age is sometimes hard to engage anyway just because of their age, but this is something that’s proving very engaging for them. They’re all excited to come down to the farm, and we wanted to test it out on a small scale first, which is why we started with the chickens, it was the easiest to raise and to care for and then see how that went.

“So far it’s been very successful, and we’re kind of in the mix — we’re not inside the city but we’re not far, far out into the country as well, so this was kind of a good test ground for it for a unique opportunity,” she added.

Tinker agreed.

“Last year we also implemented during our special area classes in guidance, a time when they talked to kids how to sew buttons on shirts, how to hem pants or dresses,” he said. “We took them out and (showed) how to change tires, take a tire off and put it back on, how to iron clothes. Things that they may just not know how to do or haven’t seen, and so the idea came how can we expand that and I think this will be a unique experience for kids, because a lot of the kids, especially there living close to the city, growing up on a farm just isn’t available for them and getting to interact with those kind of animals and finding out a lot of where their food that they eat at night comes from.”