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Using Authentic Problems in the Classroom to Make Agriculture Come Alive

This post was written by Kaylie Ackerley 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, please see here.

"Hey, do you know of an ag program in central New York that could give me an estimate and actually do my wedding flowers?"

As usual, I was spending my Sunday evening sitting at my computer and planning out the lessons for the next week when the text message from my former college roommate popped up on my screen. The question was perfect—I was in the process of deciding how to liven up the plant science unit in my Introduction to Agriculture class.

"Not sure if there are other chapters doing this, but I'd love to present the problem to my students and let them come up with a proposal and centerpiece suggestion! Do you mind if I use this?" I responded.

As agriculturalists, we face authentic, real-world problems on a regular basis, so why should our classrooms be any different? Using authentic problems for classroom instruction is the ultimate way of allowing our students to "try on" different careers and see how they fit. Using pedagogies such as project-based learning or problem-based learning allows students to take responsibility and ownership over their education. According to the Buck Institute for Education, project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy in which students gain knowledge and information by investigating and proposing solutions to authentic, engaging and complex questions, problems or challenges. Some researchers believe that PBL is a better methodology than traditional teaching pedagogies because it develops students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills by providing an increased level of motivation.

In this instance, my roommate provided the authentic problem: estimate and create a plan for wedding flowers for a bride on a budget. Sometimes the problems fall into your lap—like it did in this instance—and other times, you’ll have to spend more time considering what the learning outcomes are and how to create a problem the students can solve. Other problems I’ve used in the past include: adding a community garden at the school, create a composting system to reduce waste at a local business, and figuring out how to design a growing system for a self-sufficient food supply for a certain-sized city. 

Once you identify the problem, then it's time to think from your students' perspective. Thinking like your students is a critical step to succeeding in authentic, problem-based instruction because it will allow you to be one step ahead of your students. I knew my students' first response would be "How are we supposed to know that?" In order to help them overcome their bafflement, I identified some parameters on the project such as the color scheme, the types of flowers that should be included, and the number and types of arrangements needed. The next step is to evaluate how much of the information you're going to teach students and how much of the information you want your students to discover on their own. In this case, I came up with worksheets on what cut flowers are in season; researched online wholesale florists where students could get pricing; and created a planning document for each group so they could make a plan of action on how they were going to create a professional proposal for their client. This type of scaffolding helps to break the problem down into smaller steps that the students can complete. Through this process, the teams create a "prototype" of the centerpiece from their proposal, calculate the cost of materials, and set a mark-up for the retail value of a single arrangement.

Photo: One of the flower arrangements Kaylie's students created. Credit: Kaylie Ackerley.

"Look at how our centerpiece came out!" Carl excitedly shared.

"It looks great! I like the asymmetrical line of your arrangement. Now, market the arrangement. You have fifteen minutes to find a buyer for the price point you've set for your arrangement," I told the class as they finished the prototypes.

By the end of the "Business is Blooming" project our client had six different wedding flower designs, proposals and price quotes as well as pictures of the students' work. By giving the students an authentic problem to enhance classroom instruction, students take ownership over their work, audition different careers, learn to think for themselves and produce work that often impresses their teachers and astounds themselves. 

Whether it’s developing a community garden to feed 40 families or creating a composting system to reduce food waste, give your students a problem and watch them tackle it with ingenuity, confidence and maturity. For additional resources on how to introduce authentic, real-world problems to classroom instruction, check out Buck Institute for Education’s website at www.bie.org.

Kaylie Ackerley is the Secondary Agriscience Educator/FFA Advisor at Spencer-Van Etten High School in Spencer, New York. She has taught for five years after completing her teacher education at Cornell University.

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.