Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix
Sorghum at School: Learn, Grow, Pop, Taste
Students investigate how and where sorghum is grown and discover its health benefits. Grades K-2
Activity 1: Growing Sorghum
- Super Star Sorghum Poster
- Learning About Sorghum activity pages
- Glue sticks
- Construction paper
- Package of whole grain sorghum
- MyPlate graphic
- Potting soil
- Scoop or large spoon
- Small pots with lids or tray
- Tape for labeling pots
- Sunny window or grow light
Activity 2: Popping Sorghum
- Whole grain sorghum
- Paper lunch sacks
- Optional toppings for popped sorghum (spray oil, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, chili powder, garlic salt, etc.)
- Learning About Sorghum activity pages
- Starring Sorghum family handout
carbohydrate: an organic compound that is the main source of energy for the body; composed of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms
copper: an essential mineral that assists in the development of red blood cells and helps with iron absorption
fiber: isolated, non-digestible carbohydrates that have beneficial physiological effects in humans
grain: the edible seed or seed-like fruit of grasses that are cereals (such as wheat, corn, and rice)
iron: helps transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body
magnesium: a nutrient that aids in calcium absorption and supports muscle function
manganese: a trace mineral necessary for many chemical reactions in the body, such as processing carbohydrates and glucose
MyPlate: nutritional guide published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); icon depicting a place setting with a plate and glass divided into five food groups
niacin: one of the eight B vitamins; helps release the energy from food
nutrient: a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life
phosphorus: a chemical element that is found in bone and teeth and is also important to chemical body processes
protein: an essential nutrient responsible for building tissue, cells, and muscle
selenium: a trace mineral that helps protect cells from oxidation and promotes a healthy immune system
thiamin: one of the eight B vitamins; helps release the energy from food and plays a role in maintaining a healthy nervous system
vitamin B6: one of the eight B vitamins; helps release the energy from food, promotes brain development, and has a role in maintaining a healthy immune system
whole grain: contains all three edible parts (the endosperm, bran, and germ) in the same proportions as the harvested grain seed before it is processed
zinc: a mineral necessary for immune function, healing, taste perception, growth, and development
Did You Know?
- Sorghum goes by different names in different parts of the world. In India, sorghum is often called jowar and in the US, some people call sorghum milo.
- Sorghum was introduced to America in 1757.12
- Between 30-35% of domestic sorghum goes to ethanol production. Sorghum produces 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel.12
Background Agricultural Connections
What is sorghum?
Sorghum is an ancient grain that is gaining popularity with American consumers as a nutrient-rich, naturally gluten-free whole grain. While there is no precise definition of the term "ancient grain," the Whole Grains Council describes ancient grains as those that have been essentially unchanged for at least the last several hundred years.1 Genetic material from an archeological dig near the Egyptian-Sudanese border dates sorghum to 8,000 BCE.2 Sorghum has a neutral, nutty flavor and can be used in both sweet and savory bowls, baked goods, entrées, soups, breading, salads, and even popped as a snack. Various forms of sorghum are also used worldwide for animal feed, biofuel, building material, fencing, pet food, and even floral arrangements.2 Sorghum grows and matures quickly. Some varieties have as few as 100 days from planting to harvest. It likes warm soil and sunshine, so it is usually planted in the late spring or early summer and harvested in the fall.
Sorghum has a rich nutrient profile. A complex carbohydrate which is naturally gluten-free, sorghum contributes a wealth of nutrients to the diet, including protein, iron, zinc, fiber, niacin, thiamin, vitamin B6, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and manganese.3
Research on sorghum in human health also highlights many plant-based compounds that contribute to blood sugar control, cancer prevention, and a reduced risk of heart disease.4 Sorghum grain is considered a functional food because it includes phenolic acids, flavonoids, and phytosterols, which are plant-based chemicals being studied for their anti-inflammatory and health-promoting effects.4,5,6
The dietary guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 reports that while most Americans eat plenty of refined grains, 98% of Americans currently fall short when it comes to whole grain intake.7 Whole grain sorghum and whole grain sorghum flour can help to close that nutrition gap. The USDA MyPlate food guide recommends making half of the grains consumed whole grains, and includes sorghum in the MyPlate whole grains gallery.8
The USDA recently approved whole grain sorghum and whole grain sorghum flour for school meal programs.9 As a result, students may see sorghum in their cafeteria meals and after school snack programs. Acceptance increases when students have the chance to taste and learn about new foods.10
History & Geography
Sorghum has long been an important grain for humans and continues to be a dietary staple for 500 million people in 30 countries in Africa and Asia.11 As an ancient grain, people have eaten and used sorghum for millennia in Northeast Africa. The earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archeological dig at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border dated 8,000 BCE.
Sorghum spread throughout Africa and along the way adapted to a wide range of environments from the highlands of Ethiopia to the semi-arid Sahel region of North Africa.2
The first report of sorghum in North America is attributed to Benjamin Franklin's 1757 writings about "broomcorn," a variety of sorghum used in broom making.2
While not indigenous to the Americas, Native populations in the Southeastern United States have long embraced sorghum as an important crop, utilizing all parts of the plant with a particular emphasis on the production of sweet syrup from the stalks. The Caharie tribe in North Carolina has relied on sorghum as a staple subsistence crop.12
Modern-day sorghum production is firmly centered in the United States, the world's leading producer and exporter of sorghum. The Sorghum Belt extends from South Dakota to Texas. Kansas leads the nation and world production with nearly six million acres devoted to growing sorghum.2
Sorghum is a sustainable agricultural crop that thrives in challenging environments while giving back to the soil and ecological systems.13
- Water Conservation: Sorghum can be grown in drought conditions and generally requires 30% less water than similar grains. Rain is the primary source of water for 91% of the sorghum acres in the United States, thereby minimizing the strain on stressed water systems.
- Soil Health: In addition to conserving water, sorghum uniquely builds and improves soil health during its growing cycle. The sorghum plant regenerates soil by retaining nitrogen and other soil nutrients. The stalks purposefully left standing in fields after harvest add nutrients, reduce soil compaction, capture moisture, and reduce wind erosion.
- Carbon Sequestration: Sorghum removes harmful carbon from the atmosphere and stores it safely in the soil, cleaning our air and helping to fight climate challenges. Sorghum farmers who reduce their soil tillage as a conservation practice ensure that carbon stays in the ground.
- Wildlife Habitats: Sorghum helps wildlife populations thrive, providing a preferred food choice for quail, pheasants, and many other species of birds and deer. The leaves and stalks left after harvest provide protection from the elements during harsh winters and extreme summer heat for wildlife.
- Ask the students whether they have heard of sorghum. Ask whether any of the students have eaten sorghum. Encourage the students to share their experience seeing or eating sorghum. For students who are unfamiliar with sorghum, ask how likely they are to try it.
- Point out that sorghum will sometimes be served in the school cafeteria. Encourage the students to choose sorghum dishes when they are served. (If possible, coordinate with school foodservice personnel for this lesson to occur on a day that sorghum is served on the school breakfast or lunch menu.)
- Explain to the students that, in this lesson, they will be investigating sorghum—what it is, how it is eaten, how it tastes, how it grows, and where it grows.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Growing Sorghum
- Display the Super Star Sorghum Poster and discuss the parts and functions of the sorghum plant. Ask if they can identify the part of the plant that we eat (the grain).
- Provide each student with the Learning About Sorghum activity pages, crayons, scissors, a glue stick, and a piece of construction paper. Instruct them to color, cut, and paste the plant parts onto construction paper to make a sorghum plant. Use the Super Star Sorghum poster as a guide.
- Pass around the package of whole grain sorghum so they can see the grains/seeds. Ask the students if they have heard of a "whole grain" and if they can describe what the term means. Discuss that a whole grain is when the entire seed or grain is eaten (i.e., the "whole grain"). Refined grains have part of the seed removed (bran and germ) and do not provide as many nutrients as whole grains.
- Display the MyPlate graphic. Explain that sorghum is a healthy whole grain and ask whether they can identify its placement on MyPlate.
- After discussing that sorghum fits in the grains section of MyPlate, instruct the students to draw a picture of sorghum in the correct food group space on page 2 of the activity sheets. Point out that grains provide energy to the body and whole grains, such as sorghum, provide nutrients including protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to help bodies grow and stay healthy.
- Explain to the students that whole grain sorghum is a seed. Tell the students that they will plant sorghum seeds. (For best results, soak whole grain sorghum overnight to soften the seed and speed the germination process.)
- Ask the students if they can explain what a seed needs to germinate and what a plant needs to grow. Acknowledge their replies and briefly review that seeds need moisture, air, and the proper temperature to germinate. Plants are alive and require nutrients, oxygen, light, and water to grow. Explain the concepts of soil nutrients, oxygen from air, light for photosynthesis, and how living plants require water.
- Set up an area in the classroom with potting soil, a scoop or large spoon, small pots, and tape for labeling.
- Work with students in small groups to fill their pots with soil and ask them to pat the soil flat.
- Have the students press 2-3 sorghum seeds 1/2-inch deep in each pot and cover with soil. Ask the students to predict what will happen to the planted seed. Introduce the concept of germination, which is how the seed sprouts and develops into a small plant known as a seedling.
- Use the tape to make a label for the pots. Have the students write their name and the date of the planting on the label.
- Show the students how to lightly water their seeds and place their pots in a lid or tray to catch the water drips.
- Place the pots in a sunny window or under a grow light. The seedlings should emerge within 4-10 days.
- Continue to water every few days, just until moist, and monitor the progress of the plants by measuring their height or counting their stalks. Ask the students to thin to one plant per container.
- Discuss the parts of the plant and how it compares to the picture of the poster.
- Talk about photosynthesis and why the plants need light to grow.
- Encorage the students to continue to care for their plants and record the progress. In warm seasons, students can transplant their plants to their home or school garden.
Activity 2: Popping Sorghum
- Explain to the students that whole grain sorghum can be popped just like popcorn.
- Pop the sorghum in small batches with the students. 1/2 cup of whole grain sorghum will make 1/2-1 cup of popped sorghum.
- Place the sorghum in a small paper lunch bag and fold the top down.
- Lay the bag flat in the microwave with the fold face down.
- Heat on high for 2-3 minutes (depending on the microwave) or until there are more than 10 seconds between pops.
- Remove from the microwave and sprinkle lightly with salt or toppings of choice.
- While tasting the popped sorghum, have the students complete items 3 and 4 on page 3 of the Learning About Sorghum activity pages by choosing at least three words from the word bank to write a story about sorghum and describing how the popped sorghum tastes.
- Discuss how sorghum is grown in the United States. Help the students identify and color the six states that grow the most sorghum—Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Nebraska—on the U. S. map on page 4 of their activity pages.
- Ask your foodservice director to describe how sorghum will be served in school meal menus and supply samples of cooked whole grain sorghum for tasting. For more information on using sorghum in the school meal program, refer to the School Foodservice Guide.
- For a savory taste, consider adding olive oil, salt, garlic salt, chili powder, or another herb or spice.
- For a sweet taste, combine with bananas, berries or other fruit, cinnamon, and yogurt or milk.
- Ask students to write a story and/or draw a picture about sorghum using one of the following themes. Post the stories or drawings in the classroom, hallway, or school cafeteria
- Popping sorghum (including their favorite topping)
- Growing a sorghum plant
- Eating sorghum for breakfast, lunch, or dinner
- A farmer growing sorghum
- A topic that inspires them based on what they have learned about sorghum
- If you have a school garden, consider planting sorghum in the spring and monitor the progress through the growing season. Since sorghum fixes nitrogen, it makes a great cover crop that will enrich garden soil.
- Show the students the Sorghum: The Super Grain video, which provides an overview of sorghum's history, growth, environmental impact, and nutrition.
- Talk about sorghum flour and how it is made from grinding sorghum. Bring a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to show how grinding sorghum creates flour. If using a hand-cranked coffee grinder, ask the students to participate in grinding the grain.
- Encourage the students to try sorghum at school or at home and share their thoughts with the class. Send home the Starring Sorghum family handout with each student.
- Brainstorm ways that students can include sorghum at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack time. Encourage them to write a story or poem, draw a picture, or create a colorful paper placemat that shows sorghum in a meal or snack.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Sorghum is an ancient grain.
- Whole grain means that the entire grain or seed is eaten.
- Seeds need moisture, air, and the proper temperature to germinate.
- Plants need nutrients, water, light, and air to grow.
- Sorghum is grown in the United States.
Recommended Companion Resources
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