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IN THE KNOW: Ag education blooms in Alexandria Area High School

Julie Critz1 / 2
Students water flowers in a greenhouse at the Alexandria Area High School's new Agriculture Education Center. (Echo Press file photo)2 / 2

Since the opening of the new high school in 2014 and the implementation of the Academies of Alexandria programming model, we have seen student interest in Agriculture Education bloom at Alexandria Area High School.

As an outgrowth of this significant student interest and need, the Alexandria School Board responded by building a Agriculture Education Center at the high school. The center opened in the spring of 2016. It includes two greenhouses, two classrooms, and a headhouse space. These spaces are used all day and every day to support 11 courses offered in the Ag Education Center. This school year, these courses will impact 495 students. We are excited and proud to say that we now have two full-time Ag Education instructors on staff at the high school.

The courses offered appeal to a wide variety of student interests. In addition to agriculture and animal science courses, students can take classes in horticulture and plant genetics. Planning the ag education coursework engages a number of different people from the community with a wide variety of experiences in the ag industry. This includes, for example, Douglas Scientific, Cenex Harvest States Cooperative, a dairy economist and a plant geneticist — a community member who retired to Alexandria whose career background was plant breeding and he also holds numerous corn patents in the U.S. These community partners are giving input to the kinds of things we should be doing that will bring real-world expertise and application to our curriculum and student experiences.

The Ag Education Center supports the district's goal of project-based learning by providing hands-on, inquiry-focused learning activities. Project-based learning is learning that is more authentic for students because they actually get to practice it and try it out, not just hear about it. Instead of reading about growing plants in a book, students are learning by doing. They get to actually plant the seeds, watch how a plant grows, evaluate how much sunlight or shade it might need, and determine the amount of proper fertilizer and/or pest control to help the plants thrive. It's more real life application and it helps students gather a deeper level of knowledge.

Students also experience the interactive aspects of the classes, like working in the greenhouse. Plants grown in the greenhouse are used in the landscaping class where students get to plant outside and see first-hand how the plants are being put into another use. Additionally, students plant the school garden and harvest vegetables such as potatoes, zucchini and carrots that are being used in the school meal program.

Additionally, we are working more openly with teachers in other content areas and hoping to continue to expand that, as we get further into our academy model. For example, we know that farming involves more than numbers/farm prices — it also encompasses economics with yield factors, history and literacy with the need to write well. We're excited about bringing projects together that teach more than just a single topic or focus area.

Recently, we hosted a tour at AAHS from the University of Minnesota-Crookston focused on encouraging students to choose agriculture as a career. We are excited about the possibilities to partner with them to promote agriculture, ag economics, ag production, and agribusiness. We are proud to have a program with growing interest on the part of students and regional post-secondary partners.

As part of the EMTNR (Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies, and Natural Resources) Academy, we are seeing students take advantage of the academy model to explore their interests throughout high school. We have many students now interested in pursuing agriculture-related careers. The modern agriculture industry encompasses hundreds of different job opportunities in fields beyond farming. Agriculture needs to feed a growing world population while facing a shortage of qualified workers. We need to attract students from beyond the traditional farm background to meet that shortage. Expanding the program has allowed us to attract non-traditional ag students and expose them to these career opportunities.

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Julie Critz is the superintendent of Alexandria School District 206. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.

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