Making it real: How CDEs give students real-world experience – and give administrators real reasons to send students to the convention and expo

By Beth A. DeHoff

It’s a game. It’s a sport. It’s a contest. And it is an indisputable teaching tool. The career development event allows students to develop real-life skills that reinforce academic standards learned in the classroom. Conveniently, while students compete for CDE honors at regional, state and national levels, they often are having too much fun to realize they are learning.

The organization’s 24 CDEs, says Van Smith, principal of Billingsley High School in Alabama and superintendent of the livestock CDE, are important academic tools. “They are a venue to display the skills taught in the agriscience classroom and lab settings,” he says. “Most young people are very competitive by nature. CDEs allow this competitive nature to be channeled to worthwhile educational goals.”

Students can compete for CDE awards at a variety of levels, but nowhere is the experience more heightened than at the national convention and expo. “The ability to perform under pressure is never greater than in a CDE final, and this is especially true at the national level,” Smith says. “The ability to harness the competitive energy of a teen and focus it on a common, worthwhile goal is never more evident than at any CDE at the National FFA Convention & Expo. You may not be the high-scoring individual, but you will have developed skills through the CDE that make you valuable in our society.”

Melissa Dunkel, an FFA education specialist, says that students heighten their technical knowledge through participating in CDEs, but the benefits reach much further. “CDEs allow members to exhibit communication skills and teamwork. These skills will prove to be important in the workforce in every career path. The competitive nature of the CDE not only makes the events fun, but it reinforces fairness and integrity when adhering to the event rules. Participants learn sportsmanship and professionalism through their presentations as well as their interactions with judges and industry observations.”

Nevertheless, many FFA advisors face shrinking school budgets and the need to justify the academic benefits of travel. FFA makes this easier through a number of tools. “All CDEs have been aligned to the Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources standards with great detail,” Dunkel says. “In the CDE handbook, an AFNR alignment chart is at the end of each CDE chapter, including AFNR indicators and measurements, related academic standards and event activities addressing AFNR standards.” The 2012 CDEs are the first to use the new alignment system.

Even as students enjoy the competition of a CDE, they are learning things that echo the lessons taught in many high school classrooms. “In many team activities, teams are given a scenario or problem that they will address in an allotted time period. This activity not only requires teams to have a high level of content knowledge but also to communicate clearly, write concisely and present findings to judges,” Dunkel says. “These skills are very relevant to the workforce and helpful in future education endeavors.”

“As a former ag teacher, I know some teachers go through tough times trying to convince administration of the educational value of FFA and CDEs,” says Smith. “However, FFA activities are an evaluated portion of the educational program. The positive attributes of FFA and their many activities, including CDEs, are extremely important to the national goal of ‘No Child Left Behind.’ When used correctly, CDEs, conventions and other FFA activities provide the incentive for students to have better grades, positive behavior and to develop into educated, well-rounded young adults.”