By JEFF PICKELL
The summer season is usually a time of rest and recuperation for teachers and students, but Pamela Wise is an exception. She’s been in and out of her classroom and paying visits to students for the last month, making preparations for the upcoming school year.
And with good reason.
As the Gorham Fayette district’s new agricultural education teacher, Wise has a lot to accomplish before the opening of school August 21. On top of preparing for four courses, the rookie instructor is charged with devising a curriculum for the fledgling program. She’ll also serve as advisor for the new Fayette chapter of the organization originally known as the Future Farmers of America, a group that works hand-in-hand with ag-ed programs across the country.
Sound like a daunting task? It is, but school superintendent David Hankins has faith in the recent Ohio State University graduate. He knows the work she’s capable of, having witnessed it firsthand as her principal at Elmwood High School in Bloomdale, Ohio. That’s where Wise was inspired to teach agriculture.
“In my high school ag program I was active in pretty much everything I could get my hands on,” she said.
Wise says today’s well rounded ag-ed curriculum is based on three things—instruction in the classroom, FFA, and supervised agriculture experiences (SAEs).
The classroom is where students will be instructed in the wide range of industries associated with agriculture. They’ll apply their knowledge during FFA-sponsored career development events. Through SAEs, students will independently hone their knowledge.
CLASSROOM—Wise has spoken with elementary students who didn’t know milk came from cows; for young children, that’s not very surprising. But she’s also spoken to adults who are alarmingly unaware of agriculture’s impact on the modern American lifestyle.
For this reason, a widespread increase in what she terms “agricultural literacy” is important to the health of the industry.
According to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan, one in four Americans were involved in growing crops 100 years ago. The ratio has dropped dramatically since then, said Wise. Now less than two percent of the population is active in farming and growing crops, with about 40 percent of the land devoted to it.
This decrease in active farmers has led to a decrease in public awareness of farming issues, she said, adding that many who level complaints against farmers are agriculturally unaware themselves.
“It’s important for students to understand the process food undergoes before it gets to the grocery store,” she said, adding that a vast amount of marketing, engineering and manufacturing jobs require knowledge of agriculture.
Which is why even students who don’t plan to farm after high school have a lot to learn from the lessons, Wise said.
Classroom education begins with an elective eighth grade exploratory course that covers an array of topics.
In high school, the focus narrows. In ag mechanics, students learn to maintain and operate a variety of agricultural machines; in construction class, they learn about economical space management and general architectural principles.
But the well-rounded classroom isn’t just about hammers and nails, nuts and bolts. Wise is also planning a general agricultural science course, a plant and soil science course, and a pre-veterinary animal science course.
Hankins said advances in these areas and advances in engineering have transformed the curriculum greatly since he taught in the 1970s.
“Today’s farmer spends more time on a computer,” he said. “Global positioning systems are huge.”
He added that fertilizer application can now be directed by satellite.
Teaching about the industries that develop new technologies, that provide services to farmers, is a crucial addition to instruction about the act of farming itself, Hankins said. The program is just as useful to a future horticulturist or future mechanic as it is to the future farmer.
“It’s going to be beneficial because an ag-ed program will give you such an array of educational opportunities,” Wise said.
FFA—In 1988, the Future Farmers of America changed its name to the National FFA Organization to emphasize thiat ag-ed isn’t just for future farmers.
When the school board was discussing re-introducing ag-ed in Fayette, Hankins pointed to the FFA as the best reason to do so.
“I’ve seen student after student grow up right in front of my eyes,” he said. “I’ve seen students who were shy burst out of their shells when they had to give a speech or make a presentation.”
Every school with an ag-ed program is required to form a student-run FFA chapter. Students elect leaders, usually a president, vice president, treasurer, sergeant-at-arms secretary and reporter, who then organize community service projects and contact local businesses about job placement opportunities for students.
Students also put what they learn in the classroom to use in FFA-sponsored contests at county, regional, state and national levels.
For instance, at the upcoming county soil judging contest, teams of students will evaluate not only which crop a piece of earth is best suited for, but whether the earth is suitable for construction, and how best to conserve it.
SAE—As chapter members of the FFA, students are required to be engaged in a supervised agricultural experience.
“It can be just about anything,” said Wise. “It’s an out of class project that students have to keep records on.”
When Wise was in high school, she monitored the progress of a corn and soybean test plot, but SAEs can also come in the form of community service projects, home improvement, research, even start-up businesses.
“It’s about responsibility,” said Hankins, adding that it’s an opportunity for students to cater their agricultural education to their specific interest.
Managing the ag-ed program is like one big SAE for Wise—through periodic home and work site visits, she’ll have to monitor the progress of 72 separate SAEs. That’s the number of Gorham Fayette students currently enrolled in the agriculture program.– August 2, 2006