Agriscience Practically Teaches Itself

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By Nina Crutchfield and Larry Lyder

Reprinted with permission by The Agricultural Education Magazine. To learn more, visit the magazine's homepage.

So often we are quick to avoid new teaching strategies, making excuses like "I don't have time to learn something new," or "what I do already works," or "that won't work with the students I have." Rather than making that snap judgment regarding the infusion of agriscience into traditional production-oriented classes, ask yourself this question: "Why am I working so hard when the students could be shouldering more of this learning/teaching relationship?"

Teachers who have truly embraced agriscience, to the benefit of the most basic lessons of production agriculture, are finding that their students are willing to take on more responsibility for their learning and as a result, agriscience practically teaches itself. These teachers find themselves becoming the facilitators of learning rather than the "sage" who delivers knowledge and expects bored, disengaged students to simply regurgitate information on a paper/pencil test.

Step One: Find a Problem to Solve

Industry keeps telling us we need to turn out graduates who can problem solve (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008). We like to think that we teach our students to do that, but are we really? Consider your teaching methods. How often do you ask students to solve a problem where you may not know the answer? The industry and science of agriculture goes far beyond what is contained between the covers of any of our textbooks or any one of us can know. There are questions just waiting to be asked and then answered by tomorrow's agriculturalists.

ALL agriculture students need to ask a question and then find the answer for themselves. As their teachers, we help them find their question and then guide them along the path to their answers. Yes, it is possible for every student to pose a question, no matter how simple or ability-appropriate it needs to be. The key is for the question to interest the student enough to want to find the answer.

A perfect example lies in the consideration of the monumental questions that baffle teenage boys around the world: "Which is better, Ford or Chevy?" and "What attracts girls to certain boys?" While alone these topics seem trivial and juvenile to us, they speak to where many of our students exist. Proven by the hours of debate they inspire among our students. Take that youthful zeal, turn it into a learning experience, and make it productive. It just might ignite a new vehemence for agriscience neither you nor your students knew existed.

Step Two: Learn from Others

Most students are stunned to realize that the questions they debate daily have been asked by many before them. Assisting them in finding postulated answers, developed by previous researchers, is a way to really evaluate the strength of their own arguments, as well as teach them to hypothesize their own thoughts. They are liable to find endless amounts of research regarding marketing strategies, preferred characteristics, and odor partialities (in the case of the car and girl questions).

Step Three: Tackle the Problem

A great agriscience educator teaches their students the scientific method, a time-tested means of solving problems that can be applied to virtually any situation. After students consider what people have done before them, have them propose their own solution or theory regarding the problem. A great example of how effectively this strategy can be used was done by a teacher and student in Oklahoma. The young man attempted to answer the age old question "Which is better, John Deere or Case tractors?" The student hypothesized that Deere tractors were superior because the brand offered more implements. Through the scientific method he determined that the John Deere tractor was more desirable among his study participants, but not for the reason he hypothesized. He found they were more popular because the implements had more interchangeable parts, reducing down time for producers when repairs needed to be made. In speaking with the student, the findings were unexpected and led to even more questions and research for his future. The simplest question can direct a student down a completely new path.

Step Four: Use FFA Awards and Contests to Motivate and Reward Learning

While this may come as a shock to some, the real purpose of FFA is to provide real-world simulations that attempt to motivate and reward students for learning. As agricultural educators we are masters at using our subject matter to teach academic standards, then using FFA awards and events to provide an application and reward for their learning. When teaching agriscience, we can direct those simple questions that students have toward an agriculture application. The best ag teachers look for a way to channel those agriscience questions toward an agriculture career pathway-- Animal Systems, Environmental Services/Natural Resource Systems, Food Products and Processing Systems, Plant Systems, Power, Structural and Technical Systems, and the new Social Systems (not a career pathway but an added dimension to agriscience events and awards). This effort facilitates participation in an agriscience Fair at the local, state, and national levels. The competition helps students evaluate their work objectively, ensures they practice their communication skills, and engages them in the exercise of justifying and defending their work. All tasks that industry says are important in all employees (Partnership, 2008). Industry also tells us they want graduates who can work together to solve problems (Partnership, 2008). In 2014, National FFA plans to launch the Agriscience Career Development Event toward that end. It is anticipated that the 4-student team will conduct a research project on a local issue then present their findings to a panel of judges. In addition, they will perform a team activity regarding a research scenario, much like a Request for Proposals, where they design a research project around the scenario. Individually, the students will critique a research paper and complete a knowledge exam.

As students extend and grow their research skills beyond their initial question and CDE competition, they can look to the new agriscience research proficiency award for even more motivation. Following the same premise as the technical proficiency awards for production and placement SAE's, the agriscience research proficiencies will reward students who engage in multiple research efforts, exhibit growth as a researcher, and engage partners in their endeavors. The application will serve as a portfolio, documenting an FFA member's efforts to answer agriscience questions, employ the scientific method, and ensure ethical practices. Students can progress from their classroom experiences in agriscience to participation in competitions such as the agriscience fair and CDE, reach proficiency, and ultimately work toward achieving the level of a Star in Agriscience (see Figure 1) . Presented at the local, state, and national levels, the Star in Agriscience is the pinnacle of achievement for FFA members engaged in agriscience research. While meeting the SAE requirements for productively earned and investment and/or hours employed, the Agriscience Star candidates must have an exemplary record of research. The Star candidates go above and beyond classroom expectations to serve as an example for all FFA members what is possible for them when they apply the science of agriculture.

Agriscience does not have to be an additional item to add to the list of things to do. When implemented across curriculum, agriscience becomes the vehicle of delivery, providing students freedom to explore the vast industry of agriculture and the science behind it; providing us with the flexibility to dive deeper into student interests and really engage them in our subject matter and standards for learning. Once we understand and practice empowering students task questions and seek answers, agriscience really does practically teach itself.

Great resources for getting started can be found at:

References

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2008). 21st century skills, education & competitiveness: A resource and policy guide. Tucson, Arizona: Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Retrieved from http://p21.org/storage/documents/21st_century_skills_education_and_competitiveness_guide.pdf