Suggestions for ag education at Michigan State

To say I’m a little bit opinionated when it comes to my major is probably a little bit of an understatement. Being the daughter of an equally opinionated ag teacher, I’ve been privy to knowing what’s going on with agricultural education at Michigan State for a good long while. I’ve heard about it when things go good and when things go….well, not so good. In my 4 1/2 years as a Spartan, I’ve watched the major change and shift – for better or for worse – and have made my opinions known on more than one occasion.

Hey, no one ever made a change by keeping their trap shut.

Teacher preparation programs around the country are changing and Michigan State is no different. As I begin the end of my undergraduate career, I want to bring to the forefront not complaints, not whining, but rather suggestions of how I think agricultural education can improve – instead of weaken – to make sure that our high school students have access to valuable lessons, skills and knowledge about the industry that every single one of us relies on day in and day out.

1. Develop ‘how to teach’ courses

My fellow students and I have talked about these types of courses for years, but we’re still waiting for something to come to fruition. As a part of the coursework in ag ed, we take lots of content-based classes – Introduction to Animal Science, Crop and Soil Science 101, Genetics, Biology….you get the picture. However, just because you know about the subjects doesn’t mean you can teach them to someone else (if you’ve ever been in a college classroom with a really smart prof who is a really bad teacher, you totally understand). We think it would be great if there was a series of courses or seminars that were basically ‘How to teach _________’ (fill in the blank: animal science, agronomy, agriscience, natural resources, plant science, bioenergy, etc.). We could learn different types of labs, best practices for experiments and projects, ideas for how to branch out of typical curriculum, etc. This could also be a great place for ‘How to coach the __________ contest’ or ‘How to fill out proficiency and degree applications’ for FFA and SAE related things. Right now we have the content and then we’re shoved into the classroom. There is not enough time in the senior level courses to make all the connections that would make great teachers. Even if they were only a series of 1 credit, 10-week courses….there needs to be that bridge.

2. Hire faculty

The College of Ag and Natural Resources took a good first step by hiring a new faculty member and a new academic specialist in ag education in the past three years. However, if the University is going to continue to be the premier school for getting certified in agricultural education (and out-of-state schools and new in-state programs threaten that), faculty who are there to teach classes (read: TEACH, not research) and work with students one-on-one are going to be absolutely necessary.

3. Value the opinions of students and alumni

Over the past 10 years, agricultural education (and ag communications) have been moved to a different department and renamed – all against the better recommendations of current students and alumni. While many factors have played into the decline in student numbers in these programs, these changes have not helped. As the college looks at yet another restructuring, it’s imperative that administration actually LISTENS to the opinions of stakeholders in ag ed and ag comm. I have been looked at by a faculty member when the major changed names and was told ‘This doesn’t affect you, so don’t worry about it.’ That cannot be the attitude of the major, the department or the college. If it is, current ag teachers will continue to recommend that their students attend other schools to get degrees in agricultural education.

4. Be creative

I had no idea that someone could get a degree in something other than Agriscience (now Environmental Studies and Agriscience) – like Animal Science or Crop and Soil Sciences – and still become an ag teacher. There is a huge number of potentially great teachers out there if we make it a mission to show that the opportunity exists. We also need to publicize ag education to those individuals who may not have had a traditional ag ed/FFA experience. In the College of Ag and Natural Resources, there are tons of people who have been great leaders and members of 4-H or grew up on farms or have an interest in local agriculture, bioenergy and beyond. These people would make great additions to the agricultural education family and we need to make a conscious effort to seek them out.

5. Show you value agricultural education

In a system where budgets are being chopped and streamlining seems the only option, Michigan State and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources needs to make a conscious effort to put their money where their mouth is. I know money is tight, but you put what you have towards the programs you value. As ag ed gets shoved to a concentration within a major, into the corner of a new department (or an existing department – we’ll see), it’s hard for students to feel like they’re cared about, like they can be successful because the college isn’t doing a very good job of supporting them. Things like faculty and academic specialist positions, expanded recruiting efforts, rebuilding alumni support, networking with ag ed people at other universities, developing valuable courses – all of these things would go a long way in growing students’ faith in the program.

I know I don’t live in the world of administration, budgets and decision-making right now. However, I know that I’ve experienced agricultural education as a student and that experience is valuable as well. I’d love to hear from students at other schools, faculty and anyone else who has an opinion on the topic. We’ve got a long road ahead of us if we’re going to rebuild agricultural education at Michigan State back into a program that everyone is proud of, but – for now – I think there’s still people willing to try.

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13 responses

  1. I like the way you thought through several dimensions — both at the university and some idea of impact in the classroom. Great post.

  2. Kathleen Hawkins | Reply

    Have you considered sharing this blog with the State News? You make some very good points.

  3. My fellow classmates and I went through this same thinking process our senior year to offer suggestions to our Ag Ed Department too. Our biggest problem was the same as your first. We too had many content area classes but not many “how to teach that” class sessions.

    1. Are you both saying that methodology courses are not required in the ag ed degree program at your schools?

      1. At Michigan State we have a ‘methods’ class for one semester our senior year. Due to the number of students in class and the time restraints, in addition to just talking about basic teaching techniques, we found it hard to get a substantial amount of teaching in and I felt like we only could brush the surface of a lot of stuff. I would really like more classes where the whole course can focus on how to teach specific areas that most ag teachers will be faced with. Additionally, we have no courses going through the intricacies of FFA and SAE. We’ve got some students in my class this year that have non-traditional/no FFA background and they’re struggling because we never introduce students to that.

      2. *There isn’t an option to reply directly to your explanation about State’s course requirements, sollmana. This will appear out of order.

        As an educator of a different discipline for nine years, I found that my college education also lacked the same approach in preparing me for the classroom, and I don’t beleive you’ll find our cases to be unique, either.

        Hindsight has revealed two things after nine years: When you arrive to your first classroom, you’ll find the teacher textbook to be very helpful in providing guidance for how and when to break down the material you’re teaching. As soon as you can get your hands on this resource before school starts, the more confident you will feel. And because you can’t predict where you’ll teach or the courses that you’ll teach right now, it will behoove you to worry less about this aspect of teaching. Remember that you teach students first, content second.

        Which brings me to my second understanding: The type of students you have and the dynamics of each class will determine how you teach the content. So no matter how great your most detailed lesson plan might be on paper, it might not be practical for the audience. One small suggestion I have when you are in the classroom is to issue a pre-test before you begin a new unit with your classes. This approach will help you determine where you need to meet them rather than vice versa. The best teachers are the ones who know and listen to their students…learning the content will be up to the student.

        With these things in mind, you’ll find out that methodology courses, theory courses and the type of college course work that you are doing now will have little impact on the type of teacher you will be. Your best resource won’t be a content-focused methodology course; it will be your motivation to teach that will make the content come alive!

        P.S. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t feel unprepared before going into the classroom.

  4. You bring up a lot of good points! I can most identify with point #1–Cal Poly offered some of the “how to” courses in the graduate and summer program, but very few, if any were offered in the general program. The “how to” courses were by far the most useful to me and I still use what I learned in those courses on a regular basis. These are the kinds of classes that we need–especially when you are a brand new teacher grasping for strategies.

    I also love pt. #4–I think this issue exists at many colleges. For me personally, I would have rather majored in a different ag area and then did the extra course work to get a credential.

    Good stuff 🙂

  5. Amanda, you are spot on. I went through the ag teacher training program many years ago, and many of the issues then were the same as those you mention. Probably the best class I took to prepare me for teaching was Teaching Ag Mechanics. I don’t know whether it’s offered any longer, but it was the only class of its kind at the time. And the student teaching experience is so important. I know it’s a hardship to pay tuition for a full year of student teaching, but I would have benefited from teaching more than one term. Keep up the great work!

    1. Anita, thank you for your thoughts. There is nothing in Ag Mechanics at all required as a part of the program, something I’ve asked for for quite a while. It’s interesting to hear you say that you would have liked to student teach for a year. While we often complain about it (more as an inconvenience and a financial burden to work 40+ hour weeks for a year with no pay), it does give added experience that maybe people at other universities don’t get.

  6. This was very valuable to me. Im a high school senior and i am very hopeful that i will be attending MSU in the fall for Ag Ed. Im a little intimidated by attending such a large school and like you said its hard for students to feel cared about especially with the reconstructing at MSU. I believe that even in high schools-students & alumni should be heard. My high school recently consolidated with another district and communication is definatly needed to make a smart decision that is more than just for the sake of the budget. i also agree- share this with State News 🙂

    1. Ashley, I’m glad you are thinking about ag education – we need all the great teachers we can get! While we still have a ways to go in improving the program, I would encourage you to still come and don’t worry about the size of the school. I love the fact that the College of Ag has a family atmosphere because so many of us already know each other from things like FFA and 4-H. If you ever have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to get a hold of me on Facebook, Twitter or through e-mail at sollman.amanda7@gmail.com!

  7. Amanda,

    I truly enjoyed reading your post and I agree with every suggestion you presented. I have a degree in ag education and I did not come from an ag background. I would have loved to have some “how to teach” courses at MSU, and I feel that I am not as prepared for a career in ag education as I could have been. I taught animal science last summer to a group of at risk students and I feel I did a great job, but I do not feel confident teaching courses like crop and soil science or ag mechanics. I feel like the entire student teaching experience should have been lead teaching and there should not have been any MSU courses during that time period. I also would have benefitted from a course on FFA/SAEs. I lost 2 teaching positions that I interviewed for because of my lack of FFA experience. I hope the college of agriculture reads your blog and some changes are made in the near future. I enjoyed the family atmosphere of the college of agriculture and that was the reason I chose agriscience as my teaching major in the first place. Best of luck in your future as an ag educatior!

  8. Regarding your point 3- being creative, the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships are an interesting opportunity. Different criteria and disciplines are offered in different states.

    The Michigan description is:

    The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Woodrow Wilson Michigan Teaching Fellowship seeks to attract talented, committed individuals with backgrounds in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—into teaching in high-need Michigan secondary schools.

    The Award
    The Fellowship includes:

    a $30,000 stipend
    admission to a master’s degree program at one of six participating Michigan universities
    preparation in a high-need urban or rural secondary school
    support and mentoring throughout the three-year teaching commitment
    guidance toward teaching certification
    lifelong membership in a national network of Woodrow Wilson Fellows who are intellectual leaders
    Eligibility
    The Fellowship is open to college seniors, graduates, and career changers.

    Participating Universities
    (in alphabetical order):

    Eastern Michigan University
    Grand Valley State University
    Michigan State University
    University of Michigan
    Wayne State University
    Western Michigan University

    More information can be found at http://www.wwteachingfellowship.org/about_the_program/michigan.php

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