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Learning by Doing Technology Adds Excitement, Real-world Experience to SAEs
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Going the Distance with Agricultural Education

 Learning by Doing: Technology Adds Excitement, Real-world Experience to SAEs


In a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) program, students learn to apply concepts and principles taught in their agriculture classes to real-world problems and scenarios. Today, many teachers are encouraging students to use the real-world tools of technology to conduct and report their SAEs.

John Neyhart, horticulture teacher at Monmouth County Career Center in New Jersey, says that he found writing SAE reports was hard for many of his students, who weren’t highly motivated to do detailed records. “So we started to give the kids digital cameras to take photographs of their work, and then we encouraged them to make PowerPoint presentations,” he says. Some students also incorporate video. “This way, we cover more than a record book – we’re bringing technology into it, so they can build their proficiency in that as well.”

Even better, Neyhart has found his student involvement and enthusiasm has increased significantly. “It’s easier for the kids to explain and talk about their project using a visual presentation rather than just writing it down,” he says. “The kids like doing it that way, and they get more excited about it.”|

A large part of conducting SAE projects involves communication between teacher and students. At Meeker High School in Meeker, Colo., just the communication can prove difficult. Busy students live two to 60 miles away from their agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor, Trina Kennedy Smith. Add to this a school district budget cut limiting the total funds available for SAE visits to $50 per year, and it’s easy to see how SAEs could be shoved aside as impractical.

Nevertheless, Smith’s students have a thriving SAE project life. “I’m able to keep up with my students’ SAE projects and give them advice and suggestions quickly and easily – simply because we can communicate digitally,” she says. Smith uses e-mail, texting, cell phone and instant messaging to keep the lines of communication open.

“I have a ‘Meeker FFA’ texting list on my cell phone. Students give me their cell numbers, and I add them to the FFA chapter texting list (with their and their parents’ permission). Whenever I need to contact the entire chapter about meetings or event reminders, or I need to contact specific members regarding their SAEs, record books, proficiencies, officer meetings or other things, I simply text them,” Smith says. “I have found this to be a very effective mode of communication because today’s students nearly always respond to a text; they may not respond to a phone call, voice mail or e-mail. It’s also much more time-efficient to send one message to 52 members at one time than to set up a telephone tree or to call each member individually.”

In addition, Smith encourages students to communicate with her electronically. “Often, students will communicate with me after school hours regarding their SAEs or FFA activities by either posting information to my Facebook ‘wall’ or sending me an e-mail,” she says. “I’d say 95 percent of my students log on to Facebook every night. While they’re building their social network, they’re often reminded to ask me questions regarding class, FFA or their SAE.”

Students also send photographs by text or e-mail to show Smith the progress of their SAE. “They’ve also e-mailed me their FFA record books, proficiency award applications and more, which allows me to help them with their record-keeping from home then e-mail them back with suggestions.” Recently, her school system has begun to allow students to submit homework electronically via a school website, which will also allow them to turn in SAE pictures, record books and applications electronically.

While the use of technology can ease communication and open new avenues of exploration and expression, it also comes with some potential pitfalls. “Protecting staff integrity is very important in this digital age,” Smith says. Her school district has recently prohibited staff from communicating with students on any non-district communication device or social network without the express, written permission of the parent(s). Smith has begun using an electronic permission slip for her students’ parents to sign that will allow her to communicate with students via text messaging, instant messaging, and on Facebook and Twitter. “Also, if you are going to ask a student to post pictures of their SAE on Facebook or even a school website, it’s very important to have parental permission for that student to do so,” she says. “If you don’t take that step, as an advisor you can find yourself in an ethical or even legal dilemma.”

Using technology can engage students in conducting  projects, keeping records, and communicating with advisors and one another in new and exciting ways. “Any way that students can learn to do presentations and learn different computer programs and technologies is positive,” Neyhart says. “These are things they will encounter in a workplace and that they need to know for the future. If, as a teacher, I can incorporate all that, it’s only going to help them down the road.”