Monday, March 30, 2009

Agicultural Education

Agricultural Education was never needed more than it is today. We are so removed from this basic application of science that most people have little idea where their food comes from.

"Craig Kohn's classroom at Waterford Union High School, students use traditional Punnett square diagrams to study animal genetics.

But they also use 80-pound Foster, the living, breathing class Holstein calf, and talk about his genetics and which of those traits they can predict his offspring may have generations from now.

Using Foster requires more post-lesson cleanup in the school's agriculture education classroom, but students say Kohn's lessons bring science alive. It is fun, real and far more engaging than memorizing facts and formulas.

The approach represents part of a revolution in agriculture education that is under way across Wisconsin and the United States.

The so-called "cows and plows" high school curriculum - animal science, plant science and mechanics - once dominated by farm kids in Carhartt jackets and Wranglers has morphed into courses that cover turf management, wildlife ecology, landscape design, biotechnology, organic farming, genetic engineering, sustainable water, biodiesel production and meat science.

The developments have exciting implications, from a wave of new student interest in agri-science to ample post-secondary career prospects.

Many school leaders are harnessing the potential of the programs. The Hartland-Lakeside School District is designing an organic farming charter school; state agriculture officials hope a similar urban agriculture school could take root in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the Oconomowoc Area School District recently invested in a new plot of land for its agriculture education students to work and use for experiments.

Districts such as Waukesha and Kettle Moraine have cut their ag departments to meet budget constraints, but the demand for quality agriculture teachers in Wisconsin and elsewhere remains high. Often, these young and enthusiastic teachers are shaping the new educational landscape.

From cattle to algae
"This isn't what an Ag Ed class looked like 20 years ago," said Waterford's Kohn, 25, as he led a tour of the greenhouse attached to his classroom (Foster's newly formed pen is just outside) and another room where Kohn built a life-sized model of a cow for his animal science students last fall.

Kohn was in medical school before he decided to pursue a career in teaching. Now he's working with students to turn algae into biofuel. The goal is to eventually power all the district's vehicles with it. And maybe score a patent.

"This is taking science one step further," said Kohn. "Students get invested in science when they see that it's real, that it has a purpose, that they are creating something that can change the world."

Nationwide, 7,200 high school agriculture education programs exist in public schools, but the National Council for Agriculture Education wants to increase that number to 10,000 by the year 2015. Beyond creating agriculture and FFA programs in new communities, the council hopes to help increase math and science proficiency and prompt more kids to look at potential careers in the "food and fiber" industries.

Wisconsin's public schools have 250 agriculture education departments, said Jeff Hicken, an education consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction and leader of the Wisconsin FFA. Most of those departments are in high schools, where the agriculture teacher advises the FFA, a youth leadership and learning program.

Qualifying for key credits
The DPI recently put its stamp of approval on the melding of science and agriculture curricula. Last year, it began approving certain agriculture courses as equivalent science courses, meaning that students could take an agriculture class and have it count for, say, a required biology credit.

"From the state superintendent's standpoint, students need more options, and this is one option for them to learn science in a little bit different way," Hicken said.

Coinciding with that development is the newly formed Wisconsin Agriculture Education and Workforce Development Council. The group, made up of state agriculture industry and education leaders, wants to ensure that all of Wisconsin's food, plant, animal, environmental and natural resource businesses have a well-educated workforce coming up the pipeline.

They're interested in kids such as 14-year-old Waterford freshman Megan Mullikin and her friend, 15-year-old Jasmine Belew. After class last week, the girls said that unlike biology, which is mostly about plants; and chemistry, which is all about chemicals; their intro to ag science class is about . . . everything.

"The way Mr. Kohn teaches it, I can apply it to real life, like something I saw yesterday in the grocery store," Mullikin said.

In Kohn's landscape design class, students choose projects in one of three areas: greenhouse management, design and budgeting, or construction. One student chose the design and budget option and planned an eco-friendly wedding that re-used all of its materials.

Another was hunched last week over a blueprint of a house, meticulously drawing to scale every rock, shrub, tree and walkway that surrounded it.

"There are huge opportunities now for students in landscaping, environmental sciences and teaching," said Ken Seering, an agriculture education teacher in the Denmark School District, south of Green Bay. "If you've got an agriculture degree from a four-year college, you're set."

I got my first agriculture degree 38 years ago and I was set. I use the principles I learned obtaining it every day if not every hour of every day.

This program works in every style school you can think of, from farm to urban to suburban to cities. We have programs in all of those areas.

Do you have agricultural education?

Ed Winkle

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