Leading the agriculture field

This fall, Elkhart Community Schools received national media recognition for the development and implementation of AgriScience curriculum into our secondary schools – a development that makes Elkhart Community Schools the largest agricultural program in the state of Indiana.

Students in all three middle schools are now able to take a course called Introduction to Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources. This course is led by teachers who have completed the nationally-recognized CASE (Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education) curriculum program. CASE curriculum is inquiry-based, includes hands-on laboratory experiments, and aligns with science, mathematics, and English language arts for lessons. The year-long class is divided into seven major units: The Circles of Agricultural Education, Communicating Today, The Science of Agriculture, Biology in Agriculture, Plants and Animals, Mechanics of Agriculture, and Looking Ahead.

In the class, students engage in science deeper than in the past, partially due to the real-life application of the science and understanding the source of food and water, but also through the use of technology. Says West Side Middle School teacher Mark Schroeder, “They are more engaged in the hands-on aspect of the program and the access it gives them to real world skills. Students are seeing the value and connection to their lives not just the connections to agriculture. Students now have the opportunity to use high end remote sensing computers, chrome books on a one to one ratio, and lab activities that have a real world value and application.”

Through this class, students are learning about a wide variety of science-based subjects, including soil composition, pH, water science, cell structure, DNA, classification, ecosystems, food science, plant structure, nutrients, animal science, fuel sources, energy sources, electricity, environmental law, and agricultural careers.

Like its’ elementary school counterpart, the middle school AgriScience program is also very hands-on. “Students run experiments in class, leading them to understand the real-world application to the classroom science,” says Cyndy Keeling, AgriScience coordinator at Elkhart Community Schools. “All three middle schools are on track to complete raised garden beds, community gardens, or courtyard projects this spring. These outdoor learning opportunities will provide an additional resource for students to understand how plants grow, and how soil, water, and sunlight play a critical part – using advanced scientific research through understanding pH levels, ecosystems, nutrients, and energy sources.”

At the Elkhart Area Career Center, many aspects of the AgriScience program are already being taught through programs like Veterinary Assisting, Creative Landscaping, Floral Design, and Motorcycle/Outdoor Power Technology. Through Veterinary Assisting, students are learning about advanced animal science concepts – conception, embryo development, birth, disease prevention and control, food safety, animal husbandry, and research. These classes are eligible for dual enrollment credits through Ivy Tech and Vincennes University. The Elkhart Area Career Center also houses the first FFA group (a youth organization based on middle and high school classes that promote and support agricultural education) in the district – one that is drawing transfers from outside the district for participation, due to the leadership and high level of curriculum by the instructors. Students have competed at the state level in FFA in areas like leadership, horticulture, and small engines. EACC students also participate in the popular elementary Ag Day – showing younger students the agriculture-based learning opportunities they will have when they are in high school.

Beginning next year, both Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial will offer Animal Science and Plant Science courses, to further the curriculum current middle school students are learning. Both courses will offer dual enrollment credits through Ivy Tech Community College. Keeling also expects to add FFA chapters at the middle school and high school levels.

The AgriScience program is in the process of developing an Ag Advisory Board – comprised of local agriculture-based businesses – who will help support and grow our AgriScience programs at the district. It’s Keeling’s goal to engage the business community in a way that matches the high level of student engagement, and to help students understand the vast number of jobs that are tied to the world of agriculture. It’s echoed by Schroeder, who says, “Students have been exposed to the many jobs that have connections to the agribusiness world, but are not actually farming. Students are often surprised by the opportunities that are available, but go unfilled because people are not trained in this area of business.”