'The research is so accelerated and exciting right now. Many
of the concepts and technolo-
gies we cover in the workshops
didn't even exist when these
teachers were in college.'
tional agriculture is for students not cut out for aca- demic rigor probably isnt in touch with the competi- tive, high-tech world of modern farming. And, chances are, they havent met Dr. Beth Wilson.
For the past 15 years, Wilson, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, has introduced hundreds of high-school agriculture students, their teachers and teachers-in-training to a new model for agricultural education one that approaches agriculture as the life science it is.
Such an approach, Wilson believes, is as valuable to future agricultural producers as it is to future scientists and even everyday consumers.
By emphasizing the use of biotechnology in agricultural education, students realize that agriculture is a science, Wilson says. And its a very important science because it determines what we eat and how we live. The less money you pay for your food the more you have for extras such as clothes and vacations.
Dr. Barbara Kirby, the Colleges assistant director of academic programs, says that Wilson has been instrumental in helping urban teachers and their students connect to agriculture in ways they hadnt before. Teachers from the most rural parts of the state have also transformed their courses by integrating the biotechnology practices, Kirby says.
Among Wilsons main contributions has been the Biotechnology for Plants, Animals and the Environment manual she helped develop with Dave Smith, an educational curriculum consultant from Pittsboro.
The manual, financed by the National Agricultural Education Council, has become an important tool for science and agriculture teachers, laying out such lab activities as extracting DNA from cow ooyctes, micropropagating plant tissue and analyzing water for agricultural pollutants. Simultaneously, the guide challenges teachers to stretch their students skills to apply mathematics, practice communications, gain basic lab skills, understand scientific methods, participate in leadership development activities and conduct independent experiments.
In addition to helping develop the manual, Wilson has also worked hard to ensure that teachers across North Carolina and the nation know how to use the tool effectively in their classrooms.
Through her doctoral research at N.C. State, Wilson knew that introducing a complex science curriculum to busy teachers requires more than a build-it-and-they-will-come approach.
Awareness isnt enough, Wilson says. My research shows we need to offer more training, more training and more training. And we cant just tell them; we have to show them.
The research led the American Association for Agricultural Education to honor Wilson with its 2001 Alan A. Kahler Outstanding Dissertation Award, and it has given her even more impetus for continuing the multifaceted teacher training programs that she began offering while she was a high school teacher.
Wilson has led national workshops in which teachers from 25 states have learned how to adopt the curriculum and, in turn, train other teachers. And, in North Carolina, Wilson offers summer workshops for 20 to 40 science and agriculture teachers in the biotechnology laboratories of N.C. States Jordan Hall. The N.C. Biotechnology Center provides annual grants for the workshops.
To teach the workshops, Wilson draws upon some of the N.C. States biotechnology experts: animal scientist Charlotte Farin, sociologist Tom Hoban and botanists Sue Carson and Niki Robertson. These researchers discuss some of the key ethical issues surrounding biotechnology and bring teachers up-to-date on the rapidly changing science of agriculture.
The research is so accelerated and exciting right now, Wilson says. Many of the concepts and technologies we cover in the workshops didnt even exist when these teachers were in college.
In addition to the workshops, Wilson also offers graduate courses covering theories and techniques for integrating biotechnology into agricultural education classes.
While it requires extra effort for a teacher to prepare biotechnology labs and lectures, Wilson insists that ignoring biotechnology is ignoring a force that is quickly reshaping modern agriculture.
Between 1996 and 2001, the world saw a 30-fold increase in the use of transgenic crops. In 2001, 46 percent of the worlds soybeans, 7 percent of corn and 20 percent of cotton were transgenic. And the numbers are even higher in the United States: 75 percent for soybeans, 34 percent for corn and 71 percent for cotton.
Biotechnology is changing everything about agriculture: It changes the products that consumers are consuming, the economics of farming -- and it gets political, Wilson says. Our students need to understand this.
That Wilson takes such an unorthodox approach to agricultural education is perhaps not surprising when you consider that she came to the profession in a rather unconventional way.
While her small eastern North Carolina high school didnt offer agriculture classes, she knew that she wanted to pursue a university degree that would prepare her for a career working with plants.
I remember when it came time to apply for college, my dad and I had to look up the word horticulture in the dictionary, she says. I grew up on a progressive farm where my father worked closely with the extension service to implement new technologies, but we didnt grow ornamental plants. I wanted to be a floriculturist.
As a junior or senior in N.C. State Universitys College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Wilson decided that she wanted to share her enthusiasm for horticultural science with high school students. She began taking education classes and ultimately graduated with a joint degree in horticulture and agricultural education.
While teaching high school agriculture classes in Wilson and Johnston counties, she earned a masters degree in agricultural education from N.C. State in 1985. She then took a job at Jordan High School in Durham, where many students had parents working in the high-tech laboratories of Research Triangle Park.
Jordan is an urban high school, and it was hard to interest the administration and the students in a traditional agricultural curriculum. They thought agriculture is just for farmers and didnt understand the science basis for agriculture, Wilson recalls.
But with money provided by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, [the former] Rhone Poulenc Ag Co. and BASF, she says, We were able to put together an agricultural biotechnology laboratory that helped change the image of agriculture for these urban students.
It made the students and their parents look twice at the program, enrollment doubled in three years and we had to hire a second agri-science teacher.
Given the success, Wilson was eager to help other agriculture teachers introduce more science and technology into their classrooms. In the late 1980s, aided by the N.C. Biotechnology Center and several of her former professors at N.C. State, she began offering weeklong workshops for teachers.
In 1989, she was named National Agri-Science Teacher of the Year by FFA. And in 1996, she joined the faculty at N.C. State as central region agricultural education coordinator, working with agriculture teachers in the predominantly urban region. She became an assistant professor in 2000, teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses in agricultural education.
Over her career, she has seen many of her former students choose careers in agricultural education and agri-science, while others have gone on to related life sciences professions like genetics, pharmaceutical science and pediatrics.
Through agri-science education, we have the opportunity to educate people who are interested in agriculture about science and we can teach people interested in science about agriculture, Wilson says.
High-school and college
students need to understand how it works, from seed to plant to food
products that we buy in the grocery store, she says. Even
if they arent planning careers in agriculture or agri-science,
they need to be able to make intelligent choices about food, about the
environment and about biotechnology.