Agri Leader

Agriscience leadership program kicks off 2013 agenda

Florida's innovative Agriscience Education Leadership program has kicked off its 13th year of activity by exposing 13 teachers to a range of agribusiness facilities in the northern part of the state. Between Sept. 20-22, the teachers toured a winery, tree processing plant, mushroom farm, plant nursery, a creamery and cotton and peanut processing facilities to get hands-on experiences they could take back to their middle and high school students in the classroom. Each school district superintendent is asked each year to nominate one agriculture teacher, one science teacher and one school administrator for the program. FDACS then selected between 12 and 15 participants. For 2013, Randall Humphrey represents Hillsborough County and Rebekah Wills represents Highlands County. Other participants include Josh Balkom from Bay County, Tiffany Nichols from Calhoun County, Marsha Bechtel from Hendry County, Wayne Lively from Lake County, Kelly Rodgers from Pasco County, Kelly Dugold and Erica Morse from Polk County, Chris Burk from Sumter County, Stacy Young from Suwannee County, and Will Smith from Volusia County.
This year's mentor educator is Beth Harper from Volusia County. She was a member of the inaugural group of teachers in 2001. "Many of our teachers haven't had a chance to experience the full range of Florida agriculture," Agriculture Commission Adam H. Putnam said in announcing this year's participants.. "These educators will see firsthand some of the 300 commodities we produce that help feed, clothe and shelter the world and how this industry impacts their daily lives. The lessons they learn will be passed on to the next generation of students in the classroom." Founded in 2001 and originally limited to agriculture teachers, the Agriscience Education Leadership program has been expanded to include science teachers and school administrators. Its ongoing evolution has been strongly supported by Putnam because of his commitment to motivating young people to pursue agricultural careers. "We took a fresh look at the program, because it is sponsored by FDACS," said Erica Der, the department's education liaison. "And one of the things we looked at was how we could reach an even broader audience of teachers and be able to share the agricultural message to all students, whether or not they had agriculture-specific classes in their school." Another goal is motivating teachers and school administrators to foster more ongoing local involvement in agriculture, including joining or forming local FFA chapters. There are currently about 60,000 students enrolled in some form of agricultural education, Der said, but only about 17,000 of them are involved with a local FFA chapter. Since its creation, the teacher-focused program has yielded important practical results. "Three years ago, we did an extensive amount of research on the impact of the program over its first nine years and what it was actually accomplishing at the local level," Der said. "And what we found was that the program had significantly increased teacher retention. For example, many of the teachers that had signed up for the program told us that there had been times before when they had questioned whether they would stay in the teaching profession. But they said this program re-energized them and reinvigorated their interest in teaching." The program has also helped create new working partnerships between agriculture teachers, science teachers and school administrators to expand promotion of and education about Florida agriculture. For example, Der said, after they go on their field trips, participating teachers often follow up by taking their students on outings to facilities in their local area. Teachers travel four times during the yearlong program to agribusiness facilities throughout the state. The next trip for the 2013 group is to south Florida in November. Beth Harper, this year's mentor educator, had high praise for the program. "As an ag teacher, you are very passionate about your subject," said Harper, who has taught agriculture for 17 years. "You're excited about agriculture. But the great thing about this program is that I was able to travel around the state and experience the agriculture industry all the way from north Florida to south Florida. It was just a super way to fall in love with Florida agriculture. And then I was able to bring that entire experience back to my classroom with things I had collected along the way, like soil from Okeechobee or peanuts from Malone or cotton or sugarcane. And I would those kinds of things part of my lesson plan so that I could really bring agriculture to life for my students." Harper said the opportunity to participate in the program again this year as mentor educator offered her a unique opportunity. "It just gives me a chance to enjoy a connection with other teachers, especially young teachers," she said. "And now the program allows me to have a connection with science teachers, too, so it's allowing me to be able to share my passion for agriculture with other teachers that might not know that much about it. So exposing them to the ag sciences is something that is very exciting to me."