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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Down on the Farm: These Vocational Educators Get It

One of the instructional strategies often supported on this site is project-based learning. PBL has been at the heart of vocational agriculture programs since the beginning. All vocational agriculture students participate in the Future Farmers of America's Supervised Agricultural Experience Programs, which consist of projects carried out individually or in groups.

One such program is run by students at Ravenna High School, in Ravenna, Nebraska. Each year for the past thirty years, Ravenna students have contributed their labor and management in lieu of rent for an 80-acre tract of pastureland owned by the school district. Students do most of the maintenance, including weed and brush control and fence repair. They also borrow money, keep detailed spreadsheet records, and care for the cattle that graze in the pasture.

At the end of the project, the cattle are sold to other cattle producers and records are closed to determine the performance of the cattle and the amount of profit or loss. Some of the profits are returned to the school's FFA chapter to help fund its ongoing leadership-development activities.

In recent years, the students have used an electronic identification system to help them collect data as the project progresses. This system, coupled with a spreadsheet, helps them understand how technology can be applied to solve business problems.

In the process, students learn much about applied science through this real-world lab. They learn much about business, economics, and marketing when they buy cattle in the fall and track their expenses throughout the year. They learn other factors, such as nutrition and health care for livestock, as well as land stewardship when they control weeds and adjust their stocking rate during periods of drought. They also learn about oral communication when they prepare and present their annual report to the school board.

Few program graduates become farmers today, but the lessons learned are valuable for young people entering almost any field following graduation.

The question here is, could this model be used to teach everything our high school students need to learn? This type of project has been proven effective in vocational classrooms for many years. What would need to be changed in schools to implement this type of learning for all students? Please share your thoughts.

Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jackie Dannemiller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I have applied this type of program in an urban school district and had fantastic results. We also allowed students to receive dual credit with a local community college and the program was integrated so that the students received credit in Language Arts, Math, Science and FFA leadership program. We made sure that teachers from all disciplines were on board with the program and still maintained it unique hands-on learning, and appied sciences, along with an SAE/SOE experience.
Judith R. Macachor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Hello! I'm responding with my former EdTech student, Adrian Sanguyo (ian_sanguyo@yahoo.com), from my university where I teach. Vocational education is also provided here among the high school students in the Philippines. The program in Nebraska is amazing. In the field of sciences, there should be a reduction of redundant topics. Mathematics should teach only topics that are useful in student's field in the future. NonMathematics major students should have options in high school math. Students should master skills in communication both oral and written especially writing correspondence. Basic accounting principles and worksheets must be deeply learned. Students must be literate both words and numbers, i.e., they should know how to read and compute. There are many subjects in high school that students have less and less time to study and cope up with the requirements. Too many subjects, too many requirements, are stressful to them and interests will decline. The result is that students will be burnt out and become bored. There should be less time spent in the classroom and more time in real-life activities. Standardized tests should be removed because one cannot say that he or she is not intelligent. Students must be tested on what he or she can actually do. That way he/she will have a chance to discover himself/herself wholistically. Thank you for the invitation to share our views.
Juliana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I think there is great potential in adapting rigurous project based learning in high schools particularly in rural areas where kids are surrounded by conditions that can be taken advantage of to make learning meaningful, experiential, and productive. Thinking about developing countries where child labor is often targeted, as long as it is not exploitation, there is an enormous potential in bridging agricultural activities with structured learning through which children can develop critical thinking and contribute to their community. This is a fertile ground for innovation, where collaboration between schools, local governments, and private businesses can lead to the development of an educational model where children learn high order skills and have the possibility to develop, experience and apply their knowledge to understand their surroundings, think of solutions to current needs, and create innovations. This approach also opens the opportunity to develop local capacity, avoid brain drain, and improve local economies, while not limiting the horizons of students as they would still have developed the skills needed to pursue other professional paths. The black box of how this would work is still unopened. Collaboration is essential to make this happen.
Diane Kloc's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I taught for 26 years in a traditional mathematics classroom and for 26 years I never really knew the answer to the question "When am I ever going to use this?". Sometimes I might flip to the "Real Life" examples at the end of the chapter but the students generally could not relate to them. Then I accepted a position at the Saginaw Career Complex as an integrated mathematics instructor. I now teach the embedded mathematics in the Auto Technology, Electricity, Building Construction, Plant Science, and Graphic Arts programs. After teaching a particular math concept, the students will use that mathematics in the program lesson that the program teachers are teaching and I test how well they use the math concept in the program. We have two mathematics teachers, two ELA teachers, and a science teacher on staff to work with the program teachers to teach the embedded academic subjects. It is rare when I give a straight up paper and pencil test anymore. It is even more rare to hear the question: When am I ever going to have to use this?
Agriculture Teacher's picture

I teach agriculture in Indiana. Hands on experiences are the driving force of agricultural education. This example of how the SAE is great. Even though many students probably will not be farmers in the future, they can still gain so much by this project. Most people will be pet owners in the future so some of the same concepts apply. All students need to know how to keep good records for tax and financial purposes. Since modern agriculture revolves around technology, it is important to learn up to date recording techniques on the computer. Students also take pride in their work. It's so much more beneficial to be working with actual animals than doing the same senario on paper.

Agriculture Teacher's picture

I could offer up personal experiences with hands on learning because it is the driving force of agricultural education. In class we discuss soil, erosion, plants, and topography. We took what was learned in the classroom and applied it through a hillside erosion control/beautification project on the school's property. This was such a success. The students took pride in both the school and their accomplishment.

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