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Monday, January 24, 2011

Suggestions for Ag Education

Today, guest blogger Amanda Sollman, an ag education major and future ag teacher, writes about ways to improve teacher preparation programs.

To say I’m a little bit opinionated when it comes to my major is probably a little bit of an understatement. Being the daughter of an equally opinionated ag teacher, I’ve been privy to knowing what’s going on with agricultural education at the university-level for a good long while. I’ve heard about it when things go good and when things go….well, not so good. In my 4 1/2 years as a student, I’ve watched the major change and shift – for better or for worse – and have made my opinions known on more than one occasion.

Hey, no one ever made a change by keeping their trap shut.

Teacher preparation programs around the country are changing. As I begin the end of my undergraduate career, I want to bring to the forefront not complaints, not whining, but rather suggestions of how I think agricultural education can improve – instead of weaken – to make sure that our high school students have access to valuable lessons, skills and knowledge about the industry that every single one of us relies on day in and day out.

1. Develop ‘how to teach’ courses
My fellow students and I have talked about these types of courses for years, but we’re still waiting for something to come to fruition. As a part of the coursework in ag ed, we take lots of content-based classes – Introduction to Animal Science, Crop and Soil Science 101, Genetics, Biology….you get the picture. However, just because you know about the subjects doesn’t mean you can teach them to someone else (if you’ve ever been in a college classroom with a really smart prof who is a really bad teacher, you totally understand). We think it would be great if there were a series of courses or seminars that were basically ‘How to teach _________’ (fill in the blank: animal science, agronomy, agriscience, natural resources, plant science, bioenergy, etc.). We could learn different types of labs, best practices for experiments and projects, ideas for how to branch out of typical curriculum, etc. This could also be a great place for ‘How to coach the __________ contest’ or ‘How to fill out proficiency and degree applications’ for FFA and SAE related things. Right now we have the content and then we’re shoved into the classroom. There is not enough time in the senior level courses to make all the connections that would make great teachers. Even if they were only a series of 1 credit, 10-week courses….there needs to be that bridge.

2. Hire faculty
The College of Ag and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, where I go to school, took a good first step by hiring a new faculty member and a new academic specialist in ag education in the past three years. However, if universities are going to continue developing and strengthening their ag education programs, faculty who are there to teach classes (read: TEACH, not research) and work with students one-on-one are going to be absolutely necessary. I think this is valuable, no matter where you go to school.

3. Value the opinions of students and alumni
Over the past 10 years, agricultural education programs at colleges across the country have shifted departments, colleges and gone through name changes. While many factors have played into the decline in student numbers in these programs, these changes have not helped. As restructuring continues to be an option for universities looking to cut costs, it’s imperative that administration actually LISTENS to the opinions of stakeholders in ag ed. I have been looked at by a faculty member when my major changed names and was told ‘This doesn’t affect you, so don’t worry about it.’ That cannot be the attitude of the major, the department, the college or the university. If it is, current ag teachers will continue to recommend that their students attend other schools to get degrees in agricultural education.
4. Be creative
I had no idea that someone could get a degree in something other than Agriscience Education (or a related major) – like Animal Science or Crop and Soil Sciences – and still become an ag teacher. There are a huge number of potentially great teachers out there if we make it a mission to show that the opportunity exists. We also need to publicize ag education to those individuals who may not have had a traditional ag ed/FFA experience. There are tons of people who have been great leaders and members of 4-H or grew up on farms or have an interest in local agriculture, bioenergy and beyond. These people would make great additions to the agricultural education family and we need to make a conscious effort to seek them out.

5. Show you value agricultural education
In a system where budgets are being chopped and streamlining seems the only option, universities need to make a conscious effort to put their money where their mouth is. I know money is tight, but you put what you have towards the programs you value. As ag ed gets shoved to a concentration within a major into the corner of new departments, it’s hard for students to feel like they’re cared about, like they can be successful because the college isn’t doing a very good job of supporting them. Things like faculty and academic specialist positions, expanded recruiting efforts, rebuilding alumni support, networking with ag ed people at other universities, developing valuable courses – all of these things would go a long way in growing students’ faith in the program.

I know I don’t live in the world of administration, budgets and decision-making right now. However, I know that I’ve experienced agricultural education as a student and that experience is valuable as well. I’d love to hear from students at other schools, faculty and anyone else who has an opinion on the topic. We’ve got a long road ahead of us if we’re going to strengthen agricultural education programs that everyone is proud of, but – for now – I think there are still people willing to try.

This post is an adaptation of a blog originally posted here by Amanda Sollman. Amanda is a former member of the Sanilac FFA Chapter and past Michigan FFA state officer. She is currently a student at Michigan State University, majoring in Agriscience Education. Amanda is looking forward to starting a year of student teaching in the fall of 2011.


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