Immersion Experience Offers Lessons for Aspiring Agriscience Teachers

Apr 12, 2024

Sarah Beaver could have opted for a beach getaway for spring break. Instead, the first-year student in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences dedicated her time to imparting lessons on global citizenship to high school students in Houston, Texas.

“The experience of being in the classroom, engaging with teachers and peers, especially in an urban environment and an unfamiliar state, was valuable,” said Beaver, who is majoring in agricultural and extension education with a minor in international agriculture. “It bolstered my confidence and solidified my aspiration to become an agricultural educator.”

The spring break immersion experience was part of GOALs: Global Orientation to Agricultural Learning, a Global Teach Ag Network project involving Penn State, the University of Idaho, 1890 land-grant institutions (historically black colleges and universities), and the World Food Prize Foundation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Higher Education Challenge Program funds the program.

According to Daniel Foster, associate professor of agricultural and extension education and co-founder of Global Teach Ag Network, the GOALs curriculum provides preservice agriculture educators with a chance for professional growth by expanding their definition and understanding of “global” while providing an opportunity for international teaching exposure.

“Students in the program have access to networking opportunities with prominent global figures in agriculture and food security while also honing their teaching skills with a global perspective,” he said.

The year-long program combines classroom learning from two courses across two semesters with immersive experiences, including the World Food Prize Foundation-Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, in the fall, the applied teaching experience in the spring and the opportunity to travel to Belize to explore indigenous knowledge in agricultural education during the summer.

More recently, the cohort members used their spring break to instruct students at agricultural high schools nationwide. Beaver, of Eldred, spent her time at Davis High School in Houston.

Returning to an agricultural classroom felt like home for Beaver. It was in such classrooms that her journey as an agricultural educator began.

“My time in the FFA chapter at Otto-Eldred Junior/Senior High School ignited my passion for agricultural education,” she said. “That is when I knew it was my calling. That journey led me to pursue the agricultural and extension education program at Penn State.”

While at Davis High School, Beaver and fellow GOALs student Ainsley Goughnour, of the University of Idaho, led several classes on global citizenship, food security and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. She also toured the school’s agricultural facilities and learning laboratories, including the animal barns.

“The students were amazing,” Beaver said. “They were fully engaged throughout our sessions. We focused heavily on group activities and encouraged discussions because it is the most effective way to ensure they grasp the information thoroughly.”

Beaver said her mentor-teacher, Andra Collins-Johnson, an agriscience educator/FFA adviser at Davis High School in Houston, shared a wealth of knowledge and support. Johnson’s expertise extends to the Global Teach Ag Network, where she distinguished herself as a World Food Prize Global Guide in 2023.

This initiative, organized by the World Food Prize Foundation and the Global Teach Ag Network, brings together exceptional educators from 18 states and four countries. Participants delve into immersive learning experiences alongside scientists, policymakers and advocates combating global hunger.

Johnson said having Beaver and Goughnour at Davis High School benefited everyone involved.

“This experience was eye-opening for both students,” Collins-Johnson said. “My students were impacted by the GOALs students’ teachings and presence. Food security is a huge issue in urban and rural areas, so having Sarah and Ainsley talk about the Sustainable Development Goals was dope. It was good to see college students, so close to my students’ age, figuring it out, speaking in front of a group and showing them that it is cool to learn about global agriculture.”

Beaver advised students who are considering becoming agricultural educators — especially those interested in international agriculture — to learn more about the GOALs program.

“It is a lot of work, but the knowledge you acquire and the experiences you are offered make it worth it,” she said. “It’s an invaluable journey, and by the end of the year, you’ll find you’ve grown on personal, academic and professional levels.”

Other Penn State students who participated in the spring immersion program were Ella Strickland, a first-year student; Jeremy Rose and Cameron Goodyear, second-year students; and Nina Coolidge, a third-year student, all based at University Park; and Ben Torrey, a first-year student at Penn State DuBois. High schools in Utah, California, Florida, Idaho, Texas and Kentucky were host sites.

“We take pride in the students and their commendable efforts to advance food security and global understanding,” Foster said. “We are grateful for the high schools and teachers who supported this fantastic program.”

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