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Agricultural Service Learning Connects Students and Communities

This post was written by Greg Schneider and submitted by the InnovATE project.

The following blog is part of a series intended to share experiences of U.S. agricultural educators with a global audience. For more information about the Ag Educators Corner blog series on Agrilinks, click here.

Some 20 years ago, I was at one of my first agricultural educator in-service trainings as an aspiring young teacher. An older, experienced teacher was speaking on what makes a successful agricultural program, and I distinctly remember him saying, “It doesn’t matter how many trophies your Future Farmers of America chapter wins. If you want your community to truly support your program, figure out how your program can support your community.”  

Over the years, I have taken that advice to heart as I develop hands-on learning experiences for each class. I search for a way to combine my curricular standards and course objectives with opportunities for my students to engage in meaningful learning while meeting community needs.

Photo: Two horticulture students tend a community landscaping project. Credit: Greg Schneider.

We are a city school with a 90-minute class period. Our geographically central location puts us within ten minutes of most projects, and the extended class period gives us ample time to travel to off-campus locations.  

In our community, service-learning opportunities abound. Landscape students hone their skills by helping out at our county park system. We also perform landscape work around our courthouse and the town square. Natural Resource Management students maintain public use hiking trails and also work to manage the lake and waterfowl populations at one of our county parks. Both of these classes perform valuable services by enabling the paid Parks and Recreation staff to focus their attention where needed.

Horticulture students visit local assisted living centers to take care of plants and engage with the elderly residents. While students are learning about plant care, they are also learning soft skills and developing an appreciation for cross-generational knowledge. Horticulture students also maintain our school garden. Vegetables are raised for student use in our Family and Consumer Sciences department. The summer harvest goes to local food pantries.

Agribusiness students created a marketing strategy to help promote local agriculture and increase the agricultural literacy of community members, the vast majority of which come from a non-farm background. By creating a more “agriculture friendly” environment, we hope to attract more agriculture industry to our area and thus strengthen our local economy.  

Photo: Animal science student works at a local pig farm. Credit: Greg Schneider.

Animal science students work in partnership with area farms and a local feed mill to raise dairy, beef, hogs and poultry. All related costs and technical support come from the agricultural community, while students provide the labor. The resulting meat protein is distributed to local food pantries and soup kitchens to help address local food insecurity. It is an amazing example of the synergy among our agricultural community, agriculture students included.

In order to provide students with the flexibility to align their own personal passions with a community need, we created a Capstone Service class. Students customize their own individual service project. Students learn to identify and engage with community partners, locate and leverage resources and successfully implement a plan of action. Students enroll in this course as an independent study.

Service learning can be a valued educational component of the courses offered through any Agriculture Department. By integrating these activities into the existing course learning objectives, everyone wins. The community gets an important need met; the teacher has meaningful activities that strengthen the agriculture program by improving positive interactions with the community; and the students have learning experiences that make a positive difference in their community. By allowing students an opportunity to invest themselves personally in the learning process, they take pride and ownership in their community. This personal investment in turn lays the groundwork for students to become active and invested community members for the rest of their lives.

Greg Schneider is an agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America (FFA) advisor at Greensburg Community Schools in Greensburg, IN. He is also a National FFA Teacher Ambassador.

This blogging series on Agricultural Education is curated by the PSU Global Teach Ag! Initiative and the Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education (InnovATE) project. To learn more, visit http://aese.psu.edu/teachag/global. Questions or ideas to collaborate? Email teachag@psu.edu.