Prosser High program offers STEM-based agriculture curriculum

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 24, 2013 

PROSSER -- One of the students in Courtney Wolfram's lab group was ready to plow ahead with an experiment on respiration, but she urged restraint.

"Wait, wait, give me a second," the Prosser High School sophomore told senior Cody Johnson as she made sure she and her fellow students followed all the steps.

When finished, the students were puzzled by the results.

"Oh, it turned green," said sophomore Emma Aarstad.

"Why didn't yours change, Cody?" Courtney asked.

This is no typical science lab, and instead takes place in one of Prosser High's agricultural education courses.

Banners celebrating FFA awards and apples stored in a walk-in cooler for judging exercises make it look like a traditional ag classroom. But it also features handheld monitors, beakers and microscopes.

Three years ago, Prosser High was the first Washington school to adopt a new approach to ag education steeped in math and science. Now, most schools with ag programs in the Mid-Columbia are using it, with teachers saying the curriculum meets demand for more academically-qualified workers and better supports overall education.

"The agriculture industry in and of itself is moving away from the family farm," said Jennifer Yochum, agriculture instructor at River View High School in Finley. "This gives kids other options."

Real world applications

A national organization focused on agriculture education developed the program used by Prosser High.

Called Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education, or CASE, the school implemented it in part to help students pass the state-required biology end-of-course exam, as well as get freshmen into ag classes as early as possible, said Travis DeVore, Prosser High's career and technical education director.

While course and curriculum documents for CASE don't describe it as being science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, focused, DeVore said that's exactly what it strives for.

It was designed to reinforce students' other work in math, science and language arts, while also giving them hands-on experience aimed as close as possible to real world application.

That means gone are the days when students sat and listened to a lecture on herd management or memorized the weeds that can plague specific crops. Instead, students in Prosser High's advanced animal science course dissect fetal pigs to learn about the systems of the body, an activity not even done in the school's other science classes.

In a recent school's advanced plant science course, students conducted a lab experiment to see how permeable barriers work as part of a unit on osmosis and diffusion, an important foundation in understanding root systems. The experiment is equivalent to what is taught in AP biology classes, teachers said.

"We put an agricultural perspective to science," said Denine Trump, an ag teacher at Prosser High and a CASE trainer. "It's just so students can have a better understanding."

Junior Hanna Peters said she appreciates the teaching method, specifically how it builds upon and ties together each piece of information.

"Some classes you're like, 'Why are we learning this?' But not this one," she said.

The curriculum also draws in students who don't have a strong family tie to traditional agriculture.

Prosser sophomore Hailey Buttars said her father encouraged her to study ag because of the leadership skills taught in FFA, but neither of her parents work in agriculture and she doesn't live on a farm.

However, she thinks she wants to do something with plants as a career, such as run her own nursery. The labs and lessons in her plant science class, which has included engineering a hydroponic system, relate to that.

"I feel like this is setting me up for what I want to do later," she said.

Hands-on learning

Ag education is a natural fit with STEM, said Dennis Milliken, the state's STEM education program supervisor, as it has always emphasized career and technical education in combination with scientific and mathematical understanding.

"It met the definition of STEM long before STEM had its name," he said.

There are still a lot of ag programs around the state that don't use CASE, said Becky Wallace, state supervisor for career and technical education, and they are rigorous and educate students.

CASE also is new and doesn't have any solid data pointing to how it affects student performance. But the state has thrown support behind the new curriculum, partially because of the standardized training it provides teachers.

Prosser High has helped spread it across the state by playing host to teachers and administrators from other districts, with Ellensburg and Goldendale the most recent visitors. Mabton, Grandview, Columbia-Burbank and Walla Walla are among the Mid-Columbia school districts that also have had their teachers train in at least part of CASE.

River View High is in its first year using the curriculum's introductory agriculture, food and natural resources lesson plans. It's a required freshman course, replacing the school's previous ninth-grade physical science class, Yochum said.

The Finley school adopted the program partially because of the career and technical education it provided but also for its focus on science, a necessity to help students pass the state-required biology end-of-course exam, Yochum said.

"As a traditional ag teacher, I love it because it gets back to hands-on learning," she said.

Heidi Shattuck, agriculture teacher for Connell High School, was trained in CASE this past summer but won't be able to implement it until the 2014-15 school year, although she said she's eager.

"I think the science connection there is really important," Shattuck said. "I wish they had it when I graduated."

Less traditional approach

Teachers said the new approach is a big shift from how agriculture previously was taught.

Typical "production agriculture" education, which is more concerned with the skills used by individual farmers, ranchers and orchard managers, still has a role, DeVore said. But that's also where fewer jobs in agriculture are.

"Most people, when they think of ag, they don't think of a food analyst working for Kellogg," DeVore said.

Teaching production agriculture continues at Prosser. The school maintains a separate horticulture program and students still raise animals or crops and take part in judging competitions through FFA. But those activities are outside classroom instruction.

Yochum said CASE's less traditional approach is why it's great for students. It emphasizes investigation and real-life application, something she said her students appear to appreciate.

Cost is a potential hurdle for districts and schools looking at using CASE. It costs thousands of dollars for a single teacher to spend two weeks training to teach one course. The need for extensive scientific equipment in the classroom also can be a barrier. Support from administrators is crucial, Trump said.

"It's a big commitment," she said. "A teacher can't support it with just $500 a year."

The state has supported training for up to 20 teachers a year for the past two years and expects to continue that for at least another year, Wallace said.

Teachers also can apply for state grants to help cover the cost of classroom materials. And agriculture companies, from grower cooperatives to corporations, also have ponied up support, covering training expenses for some teachers the last few years.

But the training never stops.

Trump said she's planning to attend a two-week training next summer that will prepare her to teach CASE's biotechnology course.

That's good for Hailey, because she said she didn't know what she'd take as a junior.

"I'd definitely think about that (class)," she said.

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