What’s New in Agriscience

By Nicole Keller

Agriscience continues to evolve alongside the expanding need to feed a growing population. After two years of study, the National FFA Organization’s Agriscience Committee believes the Agriscience Student Award and Scholarship Program needs to change, too, in order to better meet student and industry needs.

With these updates, “we hope to increase participation and provide more learning opportunities for students,” said Brian Myers of the University of Florida, who serves as the agriscience committee’s superintendent. “We know, as a committee, that our job is to manage competitive events, but we’d like to impact students more than just having a competition: We want agriscience to become integrated fully at the local level, in the local school program, where the real learning takes place.”

The first noticeable change will be the administration of the Agriscience Teacher Award. The award will now be handled by the National Association of Agricultural Educators. National FFA will direct its focus exclusively toward student achievement in agriscience.

The Agriscience Research Proficiency Awards will take the place of the Agriscience Student Award Program. With many of the same features, the research proficiencies fit into the operational parameters that agricultural educators are familiar with.

More research categories, more winners
General categories, such as botany and zoology, are no longer a part of the awards program. Starting in 2012, students can apply for Agriscience Proficiency Awards in three areas: Animal Systems Research, Plant Systems Research and Integrated Research. “Integrated” project topics include environmental service systems-natural resource systems; food products and processing systems; power, structural and technical systems; and social sciences and diversified projects (covering two or more research areas), which will become full research proficiencies when funding is available.

“In the past, we would have two individuals representing each state as a winner and runner up. These individuals would compete on the national level, and we would have eight national finalists,” said Larry Lyder, the FFA education specialist who oversees the agriscience program on a national level. “Now, with the increased areas of agriscience research proficiency awards, there is the potential to recognize a greater number of individuals as finalists and winners at the state and national levels.”

To align the proficiencies with industry standards and other national award criteria, projects will undergo a new review process. Topics will largely remain the same; they’ll just be more in line with the curriculum. “The biggest change is that social science research now enters into the competition,” Myers said. “Overall, it’s just about how the Agricultural Fair is organized: There’s now a clear connection between fair projects and the Agriculture-Natural Resources career pathway, making it easier to explain to administrators, parents and students why we do what we do in class.”

More of a focus on agriscience, making more students ready for the real world
Though it’s possible to raise a Hereford while living in a high-rise, not everyone who’s interested in agriculture wants to be a farmer. “In the past, we’ve sold agriscience a little short. It’s always been in the background but now it has more of an emphasis,” Lyder said. “With the changes in genetics and biochemistry and the need to produce more and more crops for food, this is another avenue to excel for kids who enjoy agriculture but don’t want to farm.” The changes will hopefully engage more urban students. “We now have a Chicago High School of Agriculture Science, and Eastern states are jumping on board,” Lyder said. “The urban areas and chapters can be more a part of things.”

And there’s more change to come
Watch for agriscience career development events (CDEs), which will launch as soon as funding is secured. “Science doesn’t always have to be individual; in industry, you work in teams,” Myers said. “We wanted to create something that showed the team side of science. The fair is good for nurturing the individual process, but the CDEs can then draw out of the fair so students can see how real world programs in agriscience work,” making them ultimately both better consumers and, especially, better prepared to be generators of new research when they join industry.

Myers and Lyder hope FFA advisors won’t see the agriscience proficiencies as more work. Teachers who have embraced the agriscience fair say that the efforts actually make their job easier. “Teachers can pick and choose which award programs to do,” Lyder said. “This is just a way to recognize more students for the work they’re already doing,” and to encourage students to take basic fair projects a step further. “Some advisors have been asking for these changes but for others, it’s changing their frame of mind and philosophy of teaching, like two ends of a continuum.”

Teachers will receive training from their state’s FFA representatives, and all student applications must be postmarked by July 15, 2012. For more details, check out the handbook for the National FFA Agriscience Research Proficiency Awards or contact Larry Lyder, who’s also available for in-person training, (317) 802-4402 or llyder@ffa.org.