While some folks may think people who wear lab coats have little in common with those who wear field coats, most agriculture educators know better. Science—from aquaculture to botany—is an important part of agriculture. Yet, to many agriculture educators, teaching science can seem a bit intimidating.
Agriscience needn’t be difficult to teach, as it involves subjects that engage students and prepare them for the future. Melissa (Goers) Braun is an agriculture educator through and through. However, a survey of her students at Gillett Secondary School in Gillett, Wis., revealed that their interests didn’t match the agriculture curriculum. They didn’t feel it was adequately preparing them for college or the workforce.
“When I came five years ago, the curriculum was primarily production-focused. It included the traditional agriculture curriculum and some agricultural mechanics,” says Braun, who conducted the student survey in the fall of 2004.
“The response was overwhelming. Before long, three new science-driven courses were approved in the agriscience curriculum,” she says. These courses included veterinary science, equine science and aquaculture. “Our emphasis has definitely shifted from production to agriscience principles,” says Braun, whose initiative and diligence helped her to win the 2007 National FFA Agriscience Teacher of the Year award, sponsored by Potash Corp.
The well-earned title didn’t come easy. In addition to her normal workload, Braun works closely with the science department in developing her agriscience courses. “Working with the science department on these topics is extremely beneficial for our students,” she says. “To see the students in my classroom bridge these concepts is amazing! Science concepts may be confusing to a student until they put it into more life-applicable scenarios in my department, and then it just ‘clicks’ for them.”
Students focus on exploratory agriculture, small and large animal science, crop and soil science, food science, horticulture, greenhouse management, landscape design, veterinary science, aquaculture, and several other subjects in Braun’s classes, many of which are taught on a rotating schedule. Braun takes these topics and engages students through hands-on labs, activities, field trips and real-world experiences. Students in her classes can expect to dissect a cow reproductive system, grow and market almost 5,000 plants from the school’s own greenhouse, determine heart rates of several live animals, and hatch chicks, among many other experiences.
In addition to enhancing the classroom, agriscience has grown the school’s entire FFA program. “Over the last four years, the program has doubled in size with more than 105 FFA members on our chapter roster,” Braun notes. “We also have more students participating at the state level, including judging teams, degrees and proficiency applications.”
Those 105 or so FFA members are particularly impressive, says Gillett Principal Sam Santacroce, when you consider that his school has an enrollment of only 250 students. “Melissa has revamped our agricultural department and based our courses on what students want. Today, the program is growing continuously,” Santacroce says. “She’s done an excellent job promoting agriscience and FFA, and it’s really been a benefit to the school and our community.”
When students graduate from Gillett’s program, they leave prepared to excel in college studies in agriculture, agriscience, and agricultural business and technology fields. They also are well-prepared to contribute to and take over their family farms or enter the workforce.
Amanda Tolzman-Lisowe is a senior in Braun’s program and aims to follow in her footsteps as an agriculture educator. “We have done some really cool stuff–learning about artificially inseminating a cow, learning about aquaculture,” Amanda says. “I grew up on a dairy farm, so I already knew agriculture wasn’t just milking cows and growing corn. But this program gives me a lot of ideas of what I can bring into my classroom when I’m a teacher.”
Curtis Horsens also was raised on a dairy farm. A 2008 graduate of Gillett Secondary School, Horsens is headed to University of Wisconsin this fall to study dairy farming and intends to one day take over the family farm. “Mrs. Braun’s classes are really hands on, with a lot of labs and workshops,” he says. “I learned a lot. The information she taught and the way she taught it were really helpful in preparing me for college and my future.”
At the tiny Gillett Secondary School in Wisconsin, Melissa Braun has engaged nearly half the student body in FFA through agriscience. In the process, she is opening worlds of opportunity for students in today’s increasingly technical agricultural world. Clearly, agriscience is rich with opportunities–for students and their teachers.
Melissa Braun’s Tips for Enhancing your Agriscience Program
- Go outside! Have students use sidewalk chalk to create large scale anatomy models and label (digestive system, external animal, flower, etc).
- In my aquaculture class, we create giant “fish hooks” out of metal coat hangers and use a length of rope so they can practice tying knots. Then we move on to being more nimble with our fingers when we get to the real thing.
- Get involved with the community! Work with the community using student projects. We’ve pruned the fire department’s shrubs at the station, and we’re just starting to design and install a major landscape project at the new historical society house in town.
- Repetition! In my vet science class, we study the different systems the students will need to identify the parts of a brain. They have a handout that we label together, they then make another to color code the parts and laminate it to put on their lab tables, and those match a color coded huge brain on the floor. They can easily reference it during dissections, lab, class, etc.
- Job shadowing is awesome! As part of a semester project in vet science, each student must set up a time to spend a half-day with an area veterinarian. They then have to write a reflection paper on it, and it’s amazing what comes out of that paper. Every student loves the experience. They are excused from school for those hours and learn a tremendous amount from the real world field of medicine.
- Interact with the entire district’s students. My small animal science students create puppet shows about the general care of having reptiles and amphibians as pets. They present these to the first graders in our elementary school. They have to research their animals, create the puppets, and write a script that first graders will understand. It’s a great evaluative tool that’s a lot more fun than taking a written test!
- In dairy science, each student will create a fridge magnet using fun foam modeling the ruminant stomach. They must be proportional in size and labeled along with the path of food traveling through the stomach. We display them on the classroom fridge to review for the unit.
- Utilize your community businesses! We take quite a few field trips, and they are all local. Different dairy farms, a llama farm, greenhouses, fish hatchery, lakes/streams for water testing labs, etc.
- I use a lot of manipulatives to teach and reinforce topics. I order a lot of these out of science catalogs, but some can be made yourself, like a large Punnett Square with movable pieces so students can solve the problems. Parts of a plant window clings that allow them to label and understand functions of each. Anything hands-on!!!
Soil and Water Percolation Lab
Water Filtration Lab