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 Agriculture for Everyone: Urban and Rural Ag Ed Programs Engage Non-traditional Students


Dr. Paul Licthman teaches agriculture and environmental sciences at Uniondale High School on Long Island, N.Y. The 50 students in his program are all African-American or Hispanic, and 12 of their sophisticated agriscience projects earned top awards at the 2007 National FFA Convention.

Mr. Jeff Maierhofer is one of two teachers who lead the 190-student program at Seneca High School in a rural community 75 miles outside Chicago, Ill. With 18 percent of his students coming from farms, the national award-winning program covers the business, science and mechanics of agriculture.

Back in New York City, Ms. Christine Mulholland turned a paved courtyard into a rooftop horticulture lab just one block from Times Square. Her 60-student program provides hands-on opportunities for growing and marketing organic crops and flowers.

The programs led by Lichtman, Maierhofer and Mulholland may appear considerably different, but all three aim to attract students not traditionally involved in agriculture and exhibit the following themes:

  1. Engage students in hands-on opportunities,
  2. Connect learning to life outside of the classroom; and
  3. Reach out to other teachers for support and idea-exchange.

Agricultural education programs today are more diverse than ever. Nearly three in four students do not come from farms, and approximately 40 percent of FFA membership is female. Additionally, minority populations are becoming more involved in agricultural education; 12 percent of FFA membership is Hispanic, and another 4 percent is African-American. The industry of agriculture offers opportunities in more than 300 careers, and educators are constantly striving to help students see the relevance in agriculture, regardless of their backgrounds. Some teachers have found that the keys to engaging diverse groups in agriculture lie in science, experience and outreach.

Engaging through Science
“Agriculture is the place to be for everyone,” says Dr. Lichtman, whose own introduction to the vast science opportunities associated with the industry came through witnessing the FFA Agriscience Fair at the New York State Fair. He recognized an opportunity for his students to learn and compete and, consequently, transitioned his program into one with an agricultural science focus, turning botany classes into plant science and zoology into animal science.

While his students, who are located in the middle of New York City, may seem unlikely candidates to pursue opportunities in agriculture, their journey mirrors Lichtman's, whose interest grew from a non-traditional background as well. It was with the help of other agriculture educators in upstate New York and at John Bowne High School, another inner-city New York agricultural education program, that his passion for the industry and a broader program in FFA has grown. 

“They've been great,” says Lichtman. “The conventional meetings I attended as a science teacher were nothing like agricultural education meetings. They have been wonderful.”

Lichtman calls himself a “scientist in residence” who helps students start science-based projects to address a community or global good. Through these projects, Uniondale students have developed their own plant growth regulators and completed genetic testing to understand implications on the animals that may eat those plants. Other projects have examined how to make contaminated soil useful again through a symbiotic relationship with other organisms rather than additional chemicals.  Last year, Uniondale became the first high school laboratory to earn a USDA Biosafety Level 2 Designation because of their facilities and equipment.

Not only do these students achieve success in the lab and classroom, but they're earning national FFA awards, and many are continuing on to some of the nation's top schools to study plant genetics or agribusiness. Lichtman has embraced opportunities to take his students to MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, National Resources and Related Sciences) conferences, which continues to encourage his students that minorities have a place in agriculture.


Engaging through Experience
“The best way to get a student engaged is to grow things,” says Christine Mulholland, who teaches two horticulture classes at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School just one block from Times Square in New York City. “Once they have that experience, they get hooked. They get emotionally attached.”

Mulholland suggests a variety of ways to pique students' interest in agriculture but says that growing basil seed has proven a successful starting point. Not only is it simple to grow, but making the connection to pizza increases students' interest.

The organic garden is flourishing in Mulholland's third year at the school, and many students are drawn to the class as they learn about her hands-on approach. “It was a cement slab that took a life of its own,” she said. Her students work with the plants from start to finish, managing the propagation, growth and consumption of the produce. This year, her classes hope to donate the fresh foods to soup kitchens, and they have hopes of one day contributing to the farmer's market.

“There are a lot of great themes that can be extended from this,” Mulholland said. They connect production to the business of agriculture as they consider production costs and marketing options. Other classes have begun to use the gardens, as well, sometimes as an inspiration for an art class. On a broader level, Mulholland makes the program relevant by connecting with her classes about how their experiences can support New York City's initiatives to make the city green by 2030.


Engaging through Outreach
More established programs in rural areas may approach non-traditional students differently than those in urban areas. While 18 percent of Seneca, Ill., agriculture students come from farms, advisors Jeff Maierhofer and Kent Weber also work to engage students who aren't traditionally involved as more and more students come from non-farm backgrounds. Even after being recognized eight times as a Model of Innovation national finalist and once as a national winner, many community members still perceive the FFA as a group of “Future Farmers.” How do Maierhofer and Weber combat this misperception?

Their approach is simple:  reach out.

For Seneca, that means introducing elementary students to agriculture and providing opportunities to explore a broad scope of the industry in the classroom.  Freshmen receive an industry overview, diverse careers are introduced throughout the program, and classes tour the Ag Progress Show and major agricultural corporations.

Additionally, the program reaches out to the public with consistent messages in news releases and through community events such as Operation Prom and Full Speed Ahead. Operation Prom stages a fake rescue scene in the high school parking lot to promote safe choices around the prom season. Full Speed Ahead will this year clean 37 miles of state highway in one hour. (The program started with 30 miles and continues to add one each year.)

Reaching out also means diversifying curriculum. “I was 100 percent farm boy when I became an agriculture teacher, and now my favorite class to teach is horticulture,” says Maierhofer. Developing his expertise has meant taking advantage of training offered through NAAE ( curriculum support from the Illinois FCAE system ( and reaching out to local industry to learn best practices in working with greenhouses.


Embracing the Opportunity
With less than two percent of the American population living on farms and 300 careers available in the agriculture industry, engaging these “non-traditional” students in agricultural education is more important, and perhaps more challenging, than ever. Agriculture educators have the opportunity to expand the thought processes of students, schools and communities through hands-on opportunities, broader community connections and partnership with other programs. Exploring and embracing the diversity of agriculture has become not only a way to increase program variety and enrollment, but also a necessity.

“As ag teachers, we must embrace the change,” Maierhofer said.  “It has to be made, or you'll be obsolete.”