ORION, Ill. - With country music playing on the radio, 18-year-old Caleb Seys and 16-year-old Trent Zwicker are pulling apart a lawn mower engine.
A green tractor is parked in the corner. Tiny radish plants are growing nearby.
Is this a farm?
Nope. It's Jay Solomonson's classroom and work space at Orion High School, where he teaches elective agriculture education classes.
Some of his 80-plus students live on farms, but most don't.
Yet, they still are drawn to such classes as agricultural mechanics, environmental science, horticulture, veterinary science, landscape design and greenhouse management, Principal Nathan DeBaillie said.
A lot of the credit for that goes to the teacher, he said.
Solomonson is the only teacher out of nearly 400 agriculture educators in the state to win this year's "Excellence in Teaching" honor from the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers, awarded in partnership with the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the governor's office.
The award recognizes an agricultural teacher who can show the use of innovative ideas to engage students to learn about the agriculture industry, and Solomonson is the perfect example of that, his principal - and fellow graduate of Orion High School - said.
"He's creative," DeBaillie said. "He's willing to try a creative project that might not have very good odds of success, but he will always make it succeed. He even did aquaculture for the first time last year, raising tilapia with the students.
"It's not your 1960s, 1970s ag classes anymore."
Like many rural school districts in the Quad-City area, Orion offers an entire elective curriculum of agriculture courses. DeBaillie said they use core math and science concepts in the lessons, showing students that agriculture is all around them.
"I don't think people really realize how integrated agriculture is in everyday life," he said, crediting Solomonson for helping drive that concept home for students.
His award came in August after an extensive narrowing-down process, starting with a nomination by someone in his community and followed by the filing of support materials from him and his school administrator. In June, 25 section winners were named. Then, that pool shrunk to five district winners.
A final step happened during the Illinois State Fair, when those finalists and their administrators were interviewed by a judges' panel.
That happened to fall on the first day of school in Orion, so Solomonson and his principal weren't able to attend in person. They did their interviews online via Skype, and soon after, Solomonson was named the winner.
"I was very surprised," he said, showing off his plaque that arrived in the mail.
"Jay goes above and beyond," added Jim Craft, executive director for the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers in Springfield. "He's integrates SmartBoards into the classroom, he worked with a junior college (Black Hawk College-East Campus in Kewanee, Ill.) to get dual credits for his students. Some of them graduate with 15 or more college credits because of that. He's just really a plus."
Solomonson grew up on a farm outside of Orion, graduating in 1998. Naturally, he studied agriculture education and was a member of the Future Farmers of America as a student.
He enjoyed those activities so much, he continued in agriculture studies at Black Hawk College and later Western Illinois University in Macomb, where he graduated in 2002.
That same year, Solomonson was hired as the ag teacher at Orion.
Giving a tour of his classroom, mechanics lab and storage area at the school, Solomonson said his students raise rabbits and baby chickens in the spring. They also will raise tilapia again, along with planting lettuce, peppers and others plants.
In the agriculture mechanics class, they learn basic skills such as replacing filters and changing oil, he said.
"They do welding in here, too," Solomonson said. "They also do electrical wiring, surveying and carpentry."
Student Bobby DeBaillie, president of Orion's FFA chapter, said he's "learning stuff all the time" in Solomonson's ag classes.
Still tinkering with the lawn mower engine in class, Zwicker said his teacher is a big help, especially as Zwicker works toward becoming a farmer after high school.
"He knows a lot," he said about Solomonson. "It's a lot of knowledge that I'll need down the road."