Teach Ag! Society finds more than education in the Southwest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As part of a newly formed organization, student members of the Teach Ag! Society in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences were not sure what to expect when they chose to do a domestic study-abroad trip to Arizona. But over the course of eight days, 1,500 miles, six agriscience-education programs and three national parks, they found more than they were looking for.

In May this year, the 13 student-teacher candidates took their passion for agriculture and headed west to see secondary school-based agriscience education in one of the most unusual settings the United States has to offer.

The diversity of Arizona's agricultural industry, population and land provided them with six different ag programs: two in urban/suburban areas around Phoenix, two in rural areas and two that were on Navajo reservations.

The equally diverse group of students -- led by student-teacher coordinator Daniel Foster, assistant professor of agricultural and extension education -- included freshmen, sophomores, those preparing to student teach and one who had just completed student teaching.

For these Agricultural and Education Extension majors, investigating different teaching techniques and farming methods is the norm. They anticipated a trip that included meeting new students, animated discussions and fieldwork.

But bonfires, volleyball games, national parks and Navajo reservations?

From the Desert Botanical Gardens to Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Canyon and many stops in-between, their busy itinerary took them out of the classroom but never away from learning.

The first stop was the Gilbert Unified School District, an agriscience education program with three teachers that began as a rural program but is now very urban. With its own meat-processing facility, the Gilbert Program's staff and students not only showed the Teach Ag! Society how they manage their program but also allowed the Penn State students to watch as a beef was prepared, processed and packaged.

Later, on one of the Navajo reservations, the Penn State students experienced a culture that still relies heavily on sustenance farming. They also learned how the Navajo educate their youth about agriculture.

Students at Monument Valley High School, a state public school located on a reservation in Monument Valley Park near Utah, demonstrated the skill sets they were studying and how they plan to become veterinary technicians.

Monument High School boasts a $2.8 million veterinary science facility in its agriscience department and was declared one of the "Schools that Work" by Time magazine and "60 Minutes," but the facilities were not the only thing that made an impression on the Penn State students.

A barbeque hosted at a family home turned out to be an unforgettable evening. "We had the opportunity to sit around a campfire participating in traditional activities and competing in an intense volleyball game as the sun set over the valley in the background," recalled freshman Janae Herr, of Lancaster.

"We had the invaluable experience of spending quality time not only in fellowship, but also asking questions and receiving advice from seasoned individuals in our field."

Herr will transfer to University Park from Penn State Berks in the spring and looks forward to building relationships with new Penn State colleagues. "The Teach Ag! Society provides opportunities for me to grow as an individual, as a learner and as a future educator," she said.

Herr's story is not uncommon. As Foster pointed out, "Many students in the College of Agricultural Sciences transition to University Park from other Penn State campuses.

"The Teach Ag! Society is one way to connect them to other people early on and help them to feel like part of the family," he continued. "It's important for them to know that they're not just coming to a campus with 48,000 students, that they'll be part of a smaller family in their major of choice."

But the unique experiences did not end with the volleyball game that night -- there was still Many Farms, a reservation with a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where students learned about irrigation and sustainable agriculture and ate mutton at a barbeque; Chino Valley, a rural town where the school has its own farm; and Peoria, a huge urban program that teaches landscape contracting, biotechnology and agricultural mechanics.

With turfgrass as one of Peoria's focuses, the Teach Ag! Society also could add touring baseball spring-training facilities to the list of activities.

"We received a lesson not only on agricultural education in the area but also the difference in culture," said junior Jill Gordon, one of the Teach Ag! Society's officers. "We were able to engage in Native American education -- students who I at first perceived to be so different from myself were more similar than I could have imagined.

"I can't think of a more fulfilling and diverse experience in learning about school-based secondary agricultural education than the one we had in Arizona," the Birdsboro native added.

To learn more about the Penn State Agricultural and Extension Education program, and the Teach Ag! Society, or to contribute to future domestic study-abroad opportunities, email teachag@psu.edu. You also can follow the program through its blog, on Twitter (@TeachAgPSU) or on Facebook.

Contacts: 
Last Updated October 29, 2013