Corn and the Columbian Exchange



Students will understand the process of seed to fork through the lens of corn. Students will explore the transformation of corn over thousands of years, and how it has become the primary crop used in the U.S. today.


What is corn? Where does corn come from? How did corn affect our history? How does eating corn affect the world? What does food tell us about culture?



Ask students to raise their hand if they consumed corn in the past week.
Clarify the question, “not sweet corn, corn on the cob, but anything that contains corn.”
Clarify a final time by asking, “if you had a soft drink, ate crackers, chips, pretzels, or cookies in a box, brushed your teeth with toothpaste, used crayons or chalk, or even read a magazine, you consumed a product made of corn.”

Hand out a sentence strip from In a World Without Corn to each student, and invite each student to read his or her sentence out loud to the class. So where did corn come from? And how did it become this all-encompassing crop?


(The Story of Corn PDF can be used for visuals at this point)
We are going to start our path of corn 9,000 years ago in an area in Mexico called the Central Balsas region. At this point, humans had begun transitioning from a nomadic culture to an agricultural society.

The Mayan people are often referred to as the “people of the corn.” Watch “The Creation Story of the Maya”:
Now, cut to 1,000 years ago, when a fully domesticated corn, or maize, arrived in what is now New England. Over this period of a few thousand years, it had traveled across the U.S., and made its way to the West Indies, where our European explorers came across it in their search for grain. (Students may mark the West Indies on their map)

In our current food system, we have a few categories of corn:

The Different Kinds of Corn

Invite students to take 3 minutes and list all of the products they use that they think might contain corn

Afterwards, hand out the List of Corn Products, and see if any students have additions (or subtractions) from their list


What do you think are the issues with the way corn is used in our society today? Create a pros and cons list of the mass production and consumption of corn in the USA today.

Activity 2:
Explain the importance of heirloom and landrace varieties of crops. Now we are going to plant two varieties of corn in the school garden: teosinte and Narragansett White Flint Corn. Both have a deep history – teosinte is a story we know well by now.


Lesson: Corn investigation in our food system

Students complete a map of the world, showing where corn originated and how it
traveled around the world.
Students plant corn and create signage that explains the history and information on
the varieties of corn.
Homework: Students make a list of all of the products in their home that contain