Journal of the NACAA
Volume 4, Issue 2 - November, 2011
Student and Community Partnerships: A Recipe for Ag in the Classroom Success
- Hecimovich, D. A., Associate Professor of Extension, 4-H and Youth Development, University of Alaska Fairbanks
A local interest in improving agriculture literacy in the public elementary school pairs high school students and community group members in a win-win situation for all involved. Overthe past 15 years, 123 local high school students have made 440 agriculture related presentations to elementary classrooms, reaching over 11,000 students, primarily supported by the Northland Pioneer Grange #1 of Palmer, Alaska. As a result, some high school students have gone on to teaching, agriculture or other science related careers. Elementary students as well as teachers have gained a better understanding of agricultural concepts.
Increasingly, youth have little to no connection to agriculture. It is estimated that almost 90 percent of the United States population is two or three generations removed from direct contact with agricultural production. (Leising & Zilbert, 1994). Ag in the Classroom is a national education program begun in 1981, sponsored in part by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), state, local agencies and organizations to encourage agricultural literacy in our nation’s classrooms. Teacher and student curriculum on a wide variety of agricultural subjects is available through conferences, workshops, curriculum, and online resources. Ag in the Classroom program activities in Alaska includes teacher training, student materials, workshops and resources as well as elementary class presentations by local high school students.
In 1994, members of the Northland Pioneer Grange #1 of Palmer, Alaska, identified a need for improving agriculture literacy in the local public schools. This local entity of the National Grange, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, fraternal group founded in 1887, mission is to improve the quality of farm and rural life through community service, legislative activities, and youth leadership programs. Members were concerned that youth increasingly did not understand where their “food” came from, and decided to pair up with high school 4-H and FFA students to help get the word out. These groups were initially identified with points of contact already in place and it was presumed these students were more likely to be interested in agriculture related topics. The Grange offered a stipend, some materials cost reimbursement and eligibility for a $500 scholarship to interested high school students. Members provided student recruitment presentations to high school classes and groups, coordinated the efforts between elementary schools, 4-H and FFA contacts and assisted in the arrangements and transportation. The majority of presentations were coordinated with an elementary school in close proximity to the high school to reduce time and transportation concerns. Grange members also compiled teacher evaluations, interviewed and made the final scholarship recipient determination based on the evaluation and interview.
Program Activities Discussion
Currently, informational meetings are usually held at lunch time at local high schools in late fall or winter to explain the program and recruit students. Additional information may also be presented at FFA meetings or 4-H committee or teen meetings. Membership in 4-H or FFA is not a requirement, however, as mentioned previously, these students may have more interest. Interested students are provided general information, a lesson plan template, presentation tips and sources for additional reference material. Workshops to further develop lesson plans, presentation skills, experiential education and related topics are also offered. Teachers in selected elementary schools are also contacted with presenter information and topics to schedule their class presentations, usually between mid April to the end of school (mid May). The presentations often coincide with Alaska Agriculture Day which is the first Tuesday in May. Classroom presentations are generally 45 minutes long and scheduled in the afternoons. Occasionally, teachers will also request specific presentation topics or time frame.
Compile student information
Provide information to interested teachers, organizations
Optional summer presentations at camps, fairs, etc.
On average, six to ten high school students make presentations to at least three classrooms of third grade students every spring. Most students have been affiliated with a local 4-H and/or FFA program and topics often included the student’s 4-H or FFA project. The high school students research a topic, develop lesson plans and learning activities for the appropriate grade level. A wide variety of agricultural topics have been covered, including livestock, horses, gardening, forestry and paper making, bees, earthworm composting, dairy products, and pizza ingredients. High school students are encouraged to make their presentations engaging, hands-on educational opportunities and to include interactive games, activities and similar experiential opportunities in addition to traditional or audio-visual presentations. Classroom teachers provide supervision and are asked to complete student evaluations to be used in the final scholarship selection. Extensions of the program, usually initiated by the high school student, have included presentations to other youth organizations such as the local Boys and Girls Club, Girl Scouts, daycare centers, community events and use of the presentation in a 4-H, FFA or other high school competition. High school students also made occasional presentations to elementary schools they had attended, lived near or had other connections or at fairs, farmers markets, camps and local Alaska Agriculture Day celebrations.
In recent years, recruitment for the program has begun in the fall to early winter, to encourage more students, and an earlier and more flexible presentation schedule. Additional recruitment as well as support through the state Ag in the Classroom coordinator, agricultural agencies and organizations, home school families, Alaska Division of Agriculture and Mat Su Borough School District has increased awareness of the program. Pending availability of community coordinators, presenters and interested classroom instructors, this could be expanded further across the school district as well as throughout the state.
Observations and Conclusion
As the program has evolved over the years, the following observations have been noted:
- FFA advisor or other instructor/leader and peer support can strongly affect participation. Years with highest participation were those where advisors or adult leaders strongly encouraged and supported the activity and peer groups and siblings were involved. Often these groups continued making presentations for several years.
- Individual school participation is influenced by supportive, repeat classroom teachers. As teachers have moved to other schools, they have requested presentations at their current school, therefore expanding opportunities. They are likely to mention the opportunity to other teachers and are consistent with evaluations, suggestions and student support.
- Care is needed in balancing presentation opportunities against available presenters. Continuing efforts are needed to recruit high school presenters to meet current or projected requests. As awareness and interest increases, a sufficient number of presenters must be available, as well as potential logistics needs met.
- Presentations can be expanded into environmental topics. In 2009, high school student members of the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action were encouraged to participate, incorporating environmental education and literacy components to the program.
- The program could benefit from improved tracking methods. A more formal method of measuring outcomes and results could result in increased support. Thorough and accurate longitudinal data tracking of student impacts, presenter career choices, and related outcomes could positively impact the program.
This successful program has long increased interest and awareness in local agriculture, linking Ag in the Classroom, community groups, high school students and elementary classrooms to address agriculture literacy concerns. With the current movement towards local foods nationwide added to improved outcome measurement, the program could realize further impact in other areas such as career choice or college attendance. Although not all previous high school presenter information has been verified, informal tracking indicates 18% of high school presenters have pursued agriculture, natural resources or teaching related careers, possibly due to their experiences. If all science areas are included, this percentage increases to 35%. This successful community effort with similar support, the program could be expanded as well as replicated in other communities and schools for maximum benefit to all involved.
Leising, J. G. & Zilbert, E.E. (1994). Validation of the California agricultural literacy framework, Proceedings of the National Agricultural Education Research meeting, USA, 21, 112-119.
National Research Council, Board on Agriculture, Committee on Agricultural Education in Secondary Schools. (1988). Understanding agriculture: New directions for agricultural education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.