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Using On-Site Agriculture Facilities for Successful Learning Experiences

This blog is part of a series sharing experiences of U.S. agricultural educators with a global audience. It was written by Matthew Eddy and submitted by the InnovATE Project. For more information about the Ag Educators Corner blog series on Agrilinks, click here.

Richard Branson once said, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity, but you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later!” 

In this quote, I find the story of how my secondary school-based agriculture program began a partnership with the Animal Learning Center at the Iowa State Fair. Our agriculture education program has now operated the animal sciences educational display for the past ten years. Through this program, we have had contact with millions of visitors and helped tell the story of modern agriculture.

A little backstory: I’m an agriculture teacher, and the delight of my professional life for the last twenty years has been to help instruct high school students about the joys and discomforts of agriculture.

Photo: Now a practicing veterinarian, Kealie assists Dr. Hoy in giving iron shots to piglets born at the ALC.

In the summer of 2006, I had a problem that needed fixing. At the time, the majority of my students had an interest in pursuing a career in the animal science field but had no appreciable experience with animals. This, as we say in ag teaching, was a problem. Where could I find an opportunity for my students to gain hands-on experience with animals?

Thus our partnership began with the Iowa State Fair. The Fair was looking for help staffing a new agricultural display, and I needed a place for students to gain experience in a controlled, educational atmosphere. With our school district located a scant four miles from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, it seemed a perfect match.

The Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center was created to display birthing agricultural animals for the patrons of the Iowa State Fair. During a typical day at the fair, students staff three different shifts and rotate through seven different displays helping answer the public's questions on animal agriculture. Students are also invited to local news programs both at the building and on the state fairgrounds to discuss the project and their involvement, giving students a great foray into public relations.

Photo: Brooke helps instruct and tag a newborn calf with some help. Brooke is a recent animal science graduate from Iowa State University.

The ancillary pieces of the Animal Learning Center made it even more of a great fit. By association, my students also get to work with major commodity groups in our state, including beef, pork, egg, turkey and dairy along with producers of sheep and goats. Through the Animal Learning Center, they work with Iowa State University, the Department of Agriculture via the state veterinarians, and our own personal veterinarian, Dr. Hoy.

Along with the Animal Learning Center, my students have been managing a herd of 25 cows that return each year to the Center to give birth. This too, was an accidental partnership of which Mr. Branson would be proud. Our agriculture education program was approached with an offer to manage a herd of cows. I said, “Sure!” My school administration helped with adopting a new course called Advanced Animal Science, and my advisory committee worked together to make the offer a reality. Suddenly, I had a pasture, access to transportation and a support system.

Through their experience with the Animal Learning Center, my students are able to complete all cultural practices related to a typical cow-calf operation in Iowa, including artificial insemination, pregnancy checks, health evaluations, feeding, ration development, calf management, vaccination programs, marketing, sale-day evaluations, networking and landowner relations. No matter the direction of their post-graduation career path, these students also have learned valuable skills such as responsibility, how to work with people, and a fondness for agriculture.

Contextual education is one of the best tools that we can use in education and the real application of knowledge can hold positive outcomes on student learning. Mr. Branson’s advice has gotten a workout in my agriculture education program and has yielded innumerable valuable experiences for my students.

Matthew Eddy is currently in his 20th year of teaching agriscience and is currently teaching at Southeast Polk High School in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

This blog 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.