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Growing Corn - Lesson Plan

Background Notes

Corn is a plant native to North and South America. Native Americans grew many varieties of corn, including sweet corn, popcorn and corn for grinding into meal thousands of years before European explorers first arrived. In the 17th century, corn was introduced to European farmers. Most of the corn grown in the United States since the early 19th century has been used to feed animals.

Many nineteenth-century farmers kept handwritten diaries of their farming activities: planting, raising and harvesting crops and weather patterns. Today's farmers often keep track of their crops on a computer. Historians and scientists use diary and computer print-outs to study farming practices and trends over time.

In 1884, Charles Estep kept a farm diary. He lived on Musgrove highway on what was later the Fred Bulling Farm in Sebewa Township, Ionia County. You can read excerpts from his farm diary in which he writes about growing corn, oats and wheat.

Growing corn in your classroom can be both a history lesson and a science project for your students.


  • Students will formulate questions and hypotheses about how corn grows, such as how long it takes to grow its roots and shoots, whether it needs a sunny window or shady growing area, etc.
  • Students will discuss the history of corn, which Native Americans grew.
  • Students will demonstrate how they plant corn from a seed and describe the root and shoot patterns.
  • Students will order the steps in growing plants.
  • Students will maintain a diary of their corn planting questions, activities and results, then answer their questions.

Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards

The lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, this standard:

  • 5.2. INQUIRY: All students will conduct investigations by formulating a clear statement of a question, gathering and organizing information from a variety of sources, analyzing and interpreting information, formulating and testing hypotheses, reporting results both orally and in writing, and making use of appropriate technology.

Materials Needed

  • A cob of ripe dry field corn or seeds from a feed and grain store or a wild bird seed store
  • Clear glass or plastic jars with screw top lids
  • Paper towels
  • Water to dampen the towels
  • A sunny window
  • Once the corn is sprouted, five-gallon pails
  • Enough good soil and rocks to fill the pails to within four inches of the top
  • Corn Calendar
  • Pencils to take notes


Ears of corn Learn about corn. Read and discuss excerpts from Charles Estep's Farm Diary.

Print out the corn calendar and make enough copies so that each student can have one to keep track of the growth of the corn kernels. You may need to make several copies of the calendar to keep track of all the changes. Students should enter the date and a picture or words describing what is happening.

Corn Kernels

(Note: kernels from the ear of corn in this photograph were used in this experiment. Each stage of development was either photographed or scanned directly into the computer to document the different stages of growth for steps one through five.)

Step One:

  1. Obtain a dry ear of field corn.
  2. Remove several kernels from the ear by rubbing and turning the ear in your hands.

Jar of Corn

Step Two:

  1. Prepare a clean canning jar with a top that you can screw on.
  2. Fold a wet paper towel so that it stands in a ring around the inside of the jar.
  3. Stuff more wet paper towels inside the ring.
  4. Place the individual kernels of corn between the wet paper towel ring and the outside wall of the jar. Discuss: Which end of the kernel will roots come from? (The pointed end.) what will happen if you point that end up instead of down?
  5. Screw on the cover of the jar and place it in a sunny window.
  6. Turn jar one quarter turn each day so that each kernel will have sun. Or, do not turn the jars and observe the differences between kernels in the sun and those not in the sun.

Corn Plant Roots

Corn SeedlingStep Three:
  2. Record the changes you see on your corn calendar each day! 19th century farmers often did this in their diary.
  3. Think about:
    • How have the kernels changed?
    • How have the kernels stayed the same?
    • What do you think will happen next?
  4. While the corn grows, look up old-time sayings like: "Corn planted in May will be knee high by the fourth of July."
Corn Sprouting

Step Four:

  1. Prepare the soil. The corn can be transplanted into a five gallon pail with a mixture of dirt, sand, and potting soil over a thin layer of small rocks. Fill the bucket to within 4 inches of the top.
  2. Water regularly. When the corn has sprouted to the point that its stalk is 3 to 4 inches tall, transplant it (as shown in this photo—viewed from above). Water regularly. (In the real setting, farmers do not transplant the young corn stalks.)

Corn Plant

Step Five:

When corn stalks reach 2 feet ("knee high") or more, transplant them to a garden.

Corn Field

Step Six:

When the stalks reach 7 to 8 feet in height, they will produce one to two ears of corn. It helps to have at least two stalks of corn to grow so that one can pollinate the other.

Questions for Discussion or Research

  1. How long will it take a seed to sprout or grow to a point where it can be transplanted? How long will it take to grow to the point an ear is formed? What could go wrong during this time? Discuss these questions before doing the activity and record the students' estimates. After the activity, compare the estimates to what actually happened.
  2. Farmers have been relying on the The Old Farmers Almanac since 1792. Farmers relied on these weather forecasts made 18 months in advance before the days of radio, TV and "The Weather Channel." Find a copy of the Almanac from this or a recent year. Compare the forecasts to what actually took place. If you used an old Almanac, daily newspapers will have the actual weather. If you use a current one, record the actual weather each day and compare it to the Almanac's prediction. Discuss what life was like for a farmer when the Almanac would have been your only source of weather information.

At the Museum

  • The Prehistory Gallery on the museum's 2nd floor shows Native Americans cultivating corn. How does their work compare to today? Look for other agriculture-related objects in the gallery (reproductions of clay pots for storage of food items and early cultivating tools).
  • Look for farming tools in the Rural Michigan Gallery (2nd floor), in the shed in "Growing Up in Michigan, 1880-1895" exhibit (2nd floor mezzanine) and in the Early Agriculture Gallery in our 20th-century exhibits (third floor). Talk about which tools might still be used today. Using the tools, reinforce the basic steps in growing crops: preparing the ground (plowing), cultivating (weeding, watering, fertilizing), harvesting. Have students point out tools in order of their use for the various tasks (Which one would you used first? second? Why?)


  • Almanac: a yearly calendar of days, weeks and months with information about such things as weather and astronomy
  • Edible: anything that can be eaten
  • Germinate: to sprout or cause to sprout as from a seed or bud
  • Kernel: a grain or seed, of corn, wheat, etc.; the most important part of something
  • Meal: any edible grain or the edible part of any grain, coarsely ground or powdered
  • Pollinate: to transfer pollen from a stamen to the upper tip of the pistil of a flower
  • Stalk: stem of a plant


  • Bial, Raymond. Corn Belt Harvest. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
  • Ketteman, Helen. Luck With Potatoes. Pictures by Brian Floca. NY: Orchard Books, 1995.
  • Ketteman, Helen. The Year of No More Corn. Pictures by Robert Andrew Parker. NY: Orchard Books, 1993.
  • Korn for Kids (National Corn Growers Association)
  • What We Grow: Corn (Michigan Dept. of Agriculture)

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/04/2010

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