The Department of Agricultural Sciences at Waterford Union High School in Waterford, Wisconsin, offers 13 courses, including an agriscience course focusing on scientific methods of investigation and on how concepts in cellular biology relate to real processes in agriculture and life science. Here students are measuring the daily changes in the height of radish plants to determine the impact of their nutrient solution on the growth rate. (Craig Kohn)
Today’s agricultural science education programs are integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); attracting high-achieving students into agriculture programs; developing and enhancing future agriculture scientists’ 21st-century skills; and giving students in urban and suburban schools experience with agriculture. For example, when Mary Haskins, a biology professor at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, gives guest lectures on agricultural insect pests at urban high schools in her area, she brings specimens to show these students. “In the past, my presentations have typically focused on insects of agricultural/health importance, [such as] blister beetles, which are major agricultural pests. Since students tend to like the ‘gory’ stuff, I try to incorporate that as much as possible (blister beetles lend themselves to this since they are lethal to horses, humans, etc.). Even urban kids seem to have sympathy for horses.”
She also enlightens city students “about exotic invasive insects…Additionally, I have traveled a fair bit internationally, so I use lots of pics from crops/fields in other countries and compare those to conditions here.” For example, her visit “to the site of the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard [Norway] (when they were building it),” has provided her with information to share “about the purpose of seed vaults,” which is to preserve plant seeds in case of large-scale global crises.
“I also try to make working in ag science ‘cool’,” she emphasizes. “I try to include as much STEM as possible in explaining how to deal with insect problems. I also include GPS [global positioning system] and GIS [geographic information system] discussions/examples in my presentation of STEM topics. I point out all of the way cool applications of things we’ve learned from insects and other animals. [For example,] there was a scientist [who] studied how images were neurologically processed. That data and info ultimately led to some of the technology now available on expensive cars (ones in which the car will tell you if the object in the distance is getting closer, prompting a person to break for stalled traffic ahead).”
Haskins says she tries “to take something ag/biology folks would find interesting and relate it to some part of [students’ lives], [such as] how spiders are great predators, and that many strands of spider silk put together (say about one inch in diameter) would be [enough] to stop a 747 when it lands.”
Reaching Urban Middle Schoolers
At Keigwin Middle School in Middletown, Connecticut, Ashley Pereira serves as curriculum coordinator for Scholars in Action (SIA), an agriculture-themed after-school program for urban middle school students that is funded by a state department of education grant. “In our program, students gain hands-on experiential learning experiences in the various fields of agriculture. For example, we are currently ending a veterinary science unit, which included a visit to the local veterinary hospital, learning about animal behavior using our on-site animals, and practicing routine animal care with our small and large animals,” she explains.
“Sixth graders are attracted to our program due to the emphasis on hands-on learning,” Pereira asserts. “Each week, students are planting things, going on a field trip, caring for the animals, listening to an industry guest speaker, [and so on]. It is a very experiential program, and offers opportunities that most urban students would never have the chance to experience otherwise.” She adds, “Our program helps students succeed in learning science by making learning come to life. I work very hard to ensure that my lessons are culturally relevant and engaging for the urban population which the program serves.”
She points out that “what makes the agriculture portion of our program so unique is that it is taught by high school mentors. High school students that are enrolled in the vo-ag [vocational agriculture] program implement the weekly lessons rather than adults, which results in increased engagement of the middle schoolers. It is also a great opportunity for the mentors to develop their teaching and leadership abilities.”
SIA encourages students to consider careers in agriculture science because “each unit is planned around specific career clusters, and the lessons provide an in-depth look at many aspects of each career,” she observes. “Some of the units we have done this year include veterinary, plant science, animal control, and horticulture. We try to incorporate as many guest speakers and field trips as possible, so that students have a real-world perspective of what these careers entail, and they are encouraged to ask questions and explore personal interests.”
STEM is integrated throughout SIA, she notes. “For example, in today’s lesson, students will be designing a greenhouse using only Popsicle sticks, plastic wrap, and crackers. I design my lessons to incorporate STEM initiatives so students are able to recognize connections between agriculture and what they are learning in school, and also to increase their proficiency in these critical areas.”
Integrating STEM, Preparing for Careers
The Department of Agricultural Sciences at Waterford Union High School in Waterford, Wisconsin, offers 13 courses ranging from Veterinary Pet Care and Large Animal Veterinary Sciences to Gardening, Horticulture, and Greenhouse Management to Environmental Science and Biofuels to Agribusiness and Marketing, says department chair Craig Kohn. “All students begin with the year-long agriscience course. This course begins with a semester that focuses on both [scientific methods of investigation] and on how concepts in cellular biology relate to real processes in agriculture and life science. During the second semester of agriscience, students are expected to connect genetics and biotechnology to breaking trends in genomics, stem cells, and cloning, all of which are playing increasingly larger roles in agricultural production,” he explains.
The interdisciplinary nature of agriculture education makes it ideal for integrating STEM, contends Kohn. “Examples of this range from the highly medical nature of my veterinary science courses to the algebra behind population ecology in my environmental science courses. Engineering is also a key factor in many of my classes, but particularly in landscape design and in my biofuels course.”
Landscape design students “create landscapes for implementation on school grounds. They must submit a budget and present 2D and 3D models to a team that includes me, the administration, and custodial staff of the school. They must receive unanimous approval from all of us before they can begin their work. Federal grant money pays for their projects, and once they receive approval, students spend six weeks constructing their designs day by day, converting their drafting skills into actual architectural designs,” explains Kohn.
Biofuels students “use chemistry, physics, and engineering concepts to explain how biofuels affect engine performance and emissions, and connect biology and environmental science concepts with agricultural production to determine what kinds of biofuels work best in different situations. They must be able to explain the value and the disadvantages of various biofuels from the properties of the molecule itself to its combustion performance in an engine to its economic potential for a farmer growing the feedstock in the field,” he observes.
In his classes, “career preparation is a central and pivotal component,” says Kohn. “Students are expected to explore potential careers in science and agriculture and identify postsecondary schools and entrance requirements that will prepare them for this field,” he notes.
“Industry relationships are critical for preparing students for the expectations of the careers they will one day have, [so] I take my students on regular field trips to schools, universities, and international agribusinesses in the area, including Case New Holland [manufacturer of agricultural equipment], ABS Global [a bovine genetics company], [and] the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin,” he explains. “Students have the opportunity to intern at these places while still in high school and can receive awards and scholarships if they submit applications that detail their experiences to the Wisconsin FFA [Future Farmers of America] Association.”
In addition, “the nature of the courses themselves is meant to explicitly incorporate occupational training and 21st-century skills,” he observes. “The emphasis on group work is a major component of this mission. Aside from notetaking and written tests, students do all their work in their assigned groups of four. Students stay with these assigned groups for a month or longer, reflecting the fact that usually they do not get to choose their co-workers.”
Some of his students “are elected or hired as managers for our laboratory, greenhouse, and experimental field. These managers sell products, ranging from commodity crops to poinsettias to equipment designed in our lab, on commission,” he reports.
For students, the relevance of agricultural science programs to their lives is never in question. “I have never had a student ask, ‘Why do we need to know this?’ The answer is always self-evident in my courses,” says Kohn.