Learning to Learn: Why the Supervised Ag Experience Is Key to Agricultural Education

By Fritsch, Julie | Techniques, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Learning to Learn: Why the Supervised Ag Experience Is Key to Agricultural Education


Fritsch, Julie, Techniques


Hands on hips, Spencer Paul surveys his field of sweet corn. The first section will start to bear in a few weeks, meaning Spencer will soon see months of planning, hard work and financial outlay pay off. That is, if he can get the corn out of the field and into the hands of paying customers.

Spencer talks about his crop, his plans for the next few weeks and what he'd do differently given the opportunity, and then we head over to take a look at ant another enterprise he's working on--a thoroughbred mare standing alert in a paddock just outside a barn. She's been plagued with leg issues, a serious problem for a racehorse. A local veterinarian worked out an agreement with Spencer to try an experimental therapeutic procedure, letting him take part in the treatments so that he could learn firsthand about equine medicine. After weeks of work, they've discovered another issue, so Spencer is laced with the fact that she'll never run on the track. Like any entrepreneur, he's making the best or a difficult situation and has earmarked her as a brood mare for the next breeding season.

Taking setbacks in stride, building partnerships and managing a busy schedule are just a Few of the things Spencer, a high school from his is learning from his Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE). An SAE is a long-term (often multi-year), out-of-class project that allows students to apply what they learn in their agriculture classes. Students can choose to pursue an entrepreneurial experience, like Spencer; participate in research; or work for an employer in the agriculture sector. Agriculture teachers help guide the student with visits and advice, but the student is ultimately responsible for the project.

In theory a complete high school agricultural education program consists of three components: classroom instruction, leadership development (often delivered in the form of FFA) and experiential education (an SAE). Unfortunately, in recent years SAEs have begun to fall out favor in some programs. There are several reasons for this: as students in agriculture classes become more urban, Fewer are able to do SAEs that require access to a farm, and some teachers have not looked beyond those traditional types of projects. As school budgets are cut, agriculture teachers do not have the extended contracts they need to visit each student outside of school to provide guidance. Agricultural education has evolved, and SAEs have been slow to catch up.

Revitalizing the SAE

SAEs may be dwindling, but agricultural education leaders are nowhere near ready to let them go. The National Council for Agricultural Education, an umbrella group that represents all sectors of agricultural education, is mounting a campaign to bring SAEs back into every high school agricultural education program. They claim that no agricultural education program is complete without equal parts classroom instruction, leadership and experiential education (or SAE). According to the Council, SAEs help students fully grasp complex academic concepts, Put what they learn into practice and give them experience that helps guide their paths after high school graduation.

"We know that actually doing something taught in the classroom as an employee or entrepreneur is the very best learning there is," said Ken Couture, a Connecticut agriculture teacher and goal leader for the Council's SAE renewal initiative. "It helps connect students to the community and uses the expertise of business leaders to help mentor students. It gives students an opportunity to earn and learn how to manage money and a business."

A prime example: Spencer used what he learned in his high school agriculture mechanics class to build one good corn planter out of three junk ones, and he will be able to take what he learned helping that vet with his horse's therapy and apply it to lessons about blood and anatomical systems in his biology class.

More Than Just a Project

But why do SAEs have to be long-term, out-of-class projects? …

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