Lightning in a Bottle
Perspectives On Line: The Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

NC State University

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Lightning in a Bottle: With a blend of tradition and innovation, AEE has created a winning formula for agricultural education in the new century. --- By Terri Leith
Marshall Stewart (standing) says the leadership team intends to "capture and bottle up everything that's good" about the AgEd program and push it ahead. That team includes (seated, left to right) Benjie Forrest, Horace Johnson, Joshua Bledsoe and David Harris.  (Photo by Art Latham)


ornate letter The Wolfpack football squad isn’t the only N.C. State University team to achieve
a lofty national ranking this year. A 2002 status study of university agricultural education programs, conducted by the University of Missouri, named the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education (AEE) as one of the top 10 programs in the nation. Says AEE’s Dr. Gary Moore, “The primary reason for that was our unique structure of housing the state-level leadership for public school agricultural education.”

Moore refers to the agricultural education (AgEd) leadership positions, traditionally housed in the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), that have resided since 1996 in AEE in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State. What’s unique is that this is the first arrangement of its kind — one that is now being studied as a model and emulated in several states — and that it has been spectacularly successful.

Some quick stats: In 1996, there were 29,000 grade 7-12 students in AgEd in the state. Today there are 42,000. The number of N.C. agriculture teaching positions has increased from 320 to 380. The AEE leadership team has averaged adding at least four AgEd programs per year in schools that didn’t have an agricultural education program before. And participation in the state FFA is at an all-time high.

The AEE leadership group responsible for this progress is headed by Marshall Stewart, State Agricultural Education Coordinator, and includes Josh Bledsoe, State FFA Coordinator, and three regional coordinators. David Harris coordinates the west region from the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher. Benjie Forrest, eastern coordinator, operates from the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth. Horace Johnson, central region coordinator, is housed on campus in the AEE Department, along with Stewart and Bledsoe.

The need to create this team came in the mid-1990s, when staff downsizing began to take its toll on the DPI’s agricultural education program. “The agriculture teachers in this state, a base of supporters among FFA alumni and the leadership of this College, including [now Dean] Jim Oblinger, all saw it as an opportunity for AgEd and worked to establish a new leadership structure at N.C. State,” Stewart says.

Among those leading this effort were State Rep. Harold Brubaker (then speaker of the House) and former Gov. Jim Hunt. Other involved state legislators included Dan Blue, Nurham Warwick and Leo Daughtry, plus state Revenue Secretary Norris Tolson — all FFA alumni.

“These people decided they wanted to do something for AgEd,” Stewart says, “so they established a new state model for leadership of AgEd in the public schools.”

The General Assembly approved a bill in summer of 1995 to fund and establish the five state leadership positions to be housed in the AEE Department.

“We inherited a program from DPI that had a great heritage, tradition and success. The downside was, because of reduction in resources, the program had not progressed at the speed it was previously capable of. Time and people were needed,” says Stewart.

“We started Jan. 1, 1996, and were told to create AgEd as it needs to be in this state,” he says. “We wanted to modernize without losing our traditional strengths.”

ornate letter First, the team contacted agribusiness and commodity leaders and asked what they thought future programs should include. The answers were clear and specific: more science and technology; more agribusiness, world trade and entrepreneurship; and acceleration of the good work in leadership development.

As a result, “we totally redesigned the curriculum in schools,” says Stewart. “We now teach courses in biotechnology, agriscience research and environmental studies. We have new modules in animal science. And we are trying to push what the industry suggested: more business — how to grow it, merchandize it, sell it.”

As mentioned earlier, one thing that’s growing is the number of school AgEd programs. Existing programs that were standing still are now moving forward, and new ones are being steadily established — and that’s no accident.

“The three regional coordinators focus a generous amount of their time getting the program into schools where it does not exist,” Stewart says. “That’s our mentality — not just maintain, but to grow: to go to schools that don’t have AgEd and show them it’s the way to go.”

The response from public schools has been very positive, Stewart says. “We’ve added agriculture teaching positions, ag programs and students. So in my mind, it’s working. The leverage I have for continued success is a quality program. We say to schools, ‘You take this program, let us help you find a qualified teacher, you support it, and it will grow.’ They like what we do. And the affinity with N.C. State has helped, too.”

Their thinking also ventures outside the “public school box,” Stewart says.

“In 1997, we became the first state in the country to go into private schools and establish AgEd programs. The schools would call us because they wanted to establish FFA chapters, but you can’t have the club without an AgEd curriculum. So we provide the support, and they pay for their program.”

It’s all part of the team’s job, he says, “because it’s part of the land-grant mission to serve everybody.”

“Everybody” also includes home schools, Stewart adds. “We’ve been a real trailblazer in opening up agricultural education opportunities to home-school students.”

Among the types of support the team provides to school programs are preparing, managing and monitoring curriculum (under the auspices of the N.C. Board of Education); providing professional development for teachers through training seminars and workshops; and operating the FFA program.

Duties also include marketing and promoting the program throughout the state and, in that capacity, acting as outreach people for the university.

While the department and the team are under the auspices of Academic Programs in the College, Stewart mentions that he is an Extension specialist, the first for public school AgEd in the country. The other four members of the leadership group are Extension associates. “We are an academic program that has the Cooperative Extension mindset of taking information and research — the university itself — out to the people,” he says.

In the process they’re bringing more people to the university. Stewart notes the increased student enrollment in AEE — a 25-year high of more than 100 students — and he mentions that applications to the Agricultural Institute are on the rise as well, “due to our getting their materials into the hands of teachers.”

“We try to build enrollment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,” Stewart explains, “and we want students to be prepared to lead the agricultural industry in the state.”

To reach these goals, he says, “We have to redefine agriculture every day. The regional coordinators visit teachers to do this — making sure the schools have the latest innovations and technology.”

ornate letter A compelling indicator of the program’s effectiveness recently came from a Gallup Organization/FFA survey, which found that North Carolina agriculture teachers have the highest job satisfaction rating of AgEd teachers in the country.

“I have to believe that we had a role in that because we give teachers a lot of support and open opportunities for them,” Stewart says. “We want our teachers to feel good about themselves. We want every agriculture teacher to believe and know that the job they do is fantastic.

“We believe an ag teacher, because of his or her community-based approach, has the opportunity to change a young person’s life for the better.”

With that guiding philosophy, Stewart believes, “we took a good traditional program and built on it for the new century. It’s a balance of tradition and innovation, with the result that every indicator — enrollment, participation — is positive.”

Participation can be measured in SAEs — Supervised Agricultural Experiences, that is.

Whereas previously about 36 percent of students in public schools had SAE program experience, Stewart says, “now we’re running about 67 to 68 percent.”

SAEs are planned practical out-of-school activities in which students develop and apply agricultural knowledge and skills. Such experiences can include planning and operating an agricultural business, working in school laboratories or on farms, interning in a horticultural landscape firm, conducting a major agricultural experiment using the scientific process, producing and marketing an agricultural commodity or raising livestock. SAE participation is integral to FFA proficiency awards and degree programs.

“We believe every child needs such a work experience,” Stewart says, “whether it’s traditional or an agriscience research project. Some states say an SAE has to have a live plant or animal, but the definition is broader here to extend the base of opportunities across urban, rural, gender and ethnic groups — to serve the needs of all children in school AgEd.”

FFA cultivates “people who work hard, are honest, have interpersonal communication skills and are confident,” he adds. “They take that skill set into the agriculture industry.”


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