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Lesson 4: Old MacDonald Had an iPad:

Tracing Technological Innovations in Agriculture


How have agricultural challenges in the past been solved through the use of technology? What kinds of challenges do farmers face today? What tools do they use to help them fix the problems? Support your STEM and Social Studies curriculum with this video that profiles a California pistachio farmer who developed an iPad app to improve irrigation. Then, use the accompanying lesson plan to have students research historical and contemporary agricultural innovations. 



Once upon a time, farmers used to plow land manually with the help of horses. It was a long and inefficient process that was transformed with the invention of the tractor as is evidenced in this interactive video that compares the prowess of teams of horses compared to tractors. From these early farmers to today’s farmers who use global positioning systems to improve crop production, scientific and technological advances have transformed the agricultural industry.

In the first half of the 20th century, vast improvements in machinery helped farmers to work more land. Between 1948 and 1996, agricultural labor productivity increased more than eightfold, thanks to the Green Revolution which refers to a series of research, development and technology initiatives that increased agricultural production around the world. These initiatives involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, and distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.

In In the 21st century, technology is transforming agriculture, as is the Internet. Whereas the number of people fed by one farmer has jumped was 15 in 1950, in 2011 it is 155. 

Today’s farmers have advanced technology that helps them farm thousands of acres of land with the same information and control available to backyard gardeners through the tools of computers, satellites, and microchips. In this video, we get a preview of just a sliver of those types of changes. 

Featured Vocabulary

  • remote moisture sensor – a machine that wirelessly transmits soil moisture and temperature data to computers
  • combine – a machine that harvests grain crops combining three different processes—reaping, threshing, and winnowing—into a single process
  • high tech – refers to cutting edge technology
  • commodity – a product of agriculture; any marketable item produced to satisfy wants or needs

Warm Up

Would the Old MacDonald that we know so well from the popular nursery rhyme have used an iPhone or iPad on his farm today?  If so, what for? Share this modern take on the Old MacDonald song with students, taken from a blog post from Ray-Lin Dairy, a progressive California Dairy Farm blog : 

Old McDonald had a Droid,

e-i-e-i-oAnd on that Droid he had farm tools,

e-i-e-i-ocow info here, crops info thereHere a cow,

here a crop, everywhere a tech tool

Old McDonald had a Droid, e-i-e-i-o

Then, ask: What types of tech tools do you think would be useful to a farmer today? Have students brainstorm environmental or production challenges facing farmers today and brainstorm a list of technology-driven innovations in agriculture that they are already familiar with.

If time permits, share this illustration from the Nordic Association of Agricultural Scientists. It represents the exchange of and reliance upon technology by the agricultural community today.  Ask students to examine and interpret this illustration. What story does it tell about the interdependence of agriculture or food production and technology today? 

Discussion Questions

Have students watch the video while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion:  

  • What is high-tech farming?
  • What examples are cited here?
  • What are the obstacles to efficient irrigation, according to this film?
  • What is unique about the Landview App?
  • Why have farmers been successful developers of technological solutions to challenges in their line of work? 


How have inventors addressed agricultural challenges throughout history with technological innovation? What agricultural innovations are taking place around the world today?

Divide students into two groups: Past and Present. Assign students in each group the task of conducting research on technological innovations that have solved agricultural problems in one of the following categories, either in the past or in the present:

  • Water
  • Weather
  • Soil Conditions
  • Drought
  • Insects
  • Disease
  • Increased Demand for Crops

These recommended websites can jumpstart the research process:

Students can use the reproducible Obstacle Course to create comic strips that depict the problem, idea, and invention that solved the problem.

Going Further

The ongoing Cooper Hewitt/United Nations exhibit Design with the Other 90% highlights solutions that improve access to water, sanitation, food security, health, transport, and other essentials of life. Have students virtually visit this exhibit, then design apps or other technologies to solve an agricultural or environmental problem of today. 


  • Timeline: A History of American Agriculture Timelines focusing on agricultural innovation, from Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture, a chronological presentation of significant historical events focuses on the important role agriculture has played in America's development
  • Video: Horses Versus Tractors Interactive movie comparing horses ploughing to tractors, from the Living History Farm
  • Food and Tech Connect News and analysis, data, and infographics focused on how  information and technology can bring transparency, economic growth, accelerated innovation, equity and sustainability to the food supply chain



16. Understands how the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed American society

Language Arts

4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes

8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Agricultural Education

1. Understands the connections between agriculture and society

4. Understands the physical and human characteristics of place

9. Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface

14. Understands how human actions modify the physical environment16.  Understands the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution and importance of resources


13. Understands the scientific enterprise


3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual 

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