Doing to Learn: Hands-on Experience Offers Preparation for Any Career You Choose

Hands-on agriculture learning through FFA

Learning to Do, Doing to Learn.

It’s the first half of the official FFA motto, but have you stopped to think what these phrases really mean to you?

Since its beginnings in 1917, agricultural education (or, vocational agriculture as it was then called) has incorporated hands-on experiences into the lessons learned.

For the farm boys who were the original ag ed students, they learned about farm chores and management, then put their education into practice through FFA career development events and on-farm experiences.

Today, these “learning by doing” opportunities vary from school to school, but can often include a welding shop, greenhouse, farm, computer lab, meats facility, veterinary office, or even on a former member’s operation. And regardless of the career you choose, these experiences will continue with you for a lifetime.

“It expands beyond just agriculture education. We serve as somewhat of a laboratory for the entire school …”

Learning Through Livestock

Students at Paris High School in Arkansas don’t just learn about livestock production and management – they live it. Constructed two years ago, the school’s animal science facility is home to four sows and additional show pigs.

Agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Jason Binz says that his ultimate goal is for students to experience the full cycle of raising swine. Under his supervision and the help of local experts, Paris High School students learn to properly handle reproductive equipment, artificially inseminate the sows, evaluate the gestation cycle, assist with birthing and process the baby pigs. Binz says that the swine operation operates as a real business. The pigs are sold as show animals across the state, with some Paris FFA members purchasing them as well. They house their show pigs in the school facility throughout the year, which helps keep animals there year-round for educational purposes.

Even the building of the animal science barn was a learning opportunity. Binz says that his agricultural mechanics classes welded the hog pens together and poured the concrete.

He adds that these hands-on experiences reach farther than just the technical skill his students learn.

“It expands beyond just agriculture education,” he explains. “We serve as somewhat of a laboratory for the entire school. The students learn geometry and biology in their respective classes, but then they get to see them in action in the ag shop or in our animal science facility.”

Science and Math in Agriculture

Dr. Jay Jackman, executive director of the National Association of Agricultural Educators, says that the lines between agriculture and what are considered the “standard courses” blur more each day.

“Ag teachers are just as responsible for teaching math, science and reading as the teachers who focus solely on those areas,” Jackman says. “The difference is that these subjects are taught in an applied method.”

He adds, “For example, in math class, students learn about the Pythagorean Theorem. Ag ed students put this theory into action when learning how to square boards in woodworking. With this connection between math and agriculture, students can say, ‘I learned about it in math, but I did it in ag.’ ”

Hands-on agriculture learning through FFA

Real-World Application

So what does this mean for you, the student?

“Hands-on work shows you what the real world is like,” Binz says. “You won’t learn everything in the real world from a book. It’s a lot of trial and error, and you need to have effective problem-solving skills. That’s what I try to do – teach students how to think and stay ahead in the world. That’s most important for helping them in any future career they choose.”

Ashley Anderson from Massachusetts says her ag classes helped launch her career.

“I have always been interested in firefighting because my grandfather, uncle and dad were all firefighters,” she says. “I was a horticulture major in high school, and during forestry class, I was able to get comfortable with a saw and drop some trees.”

Her past experience has led to some pretty exciting work opportunities.

“This year I will be able to take my pack test to join the state wildfire team to go out west and fight fires,” she says. “Also, all the leadership skills I learned in FFA helped to shape me into the person I am. As a firefighter, I am able to communicate and lead my fellow firefighters through trainings.”

Ensuring Its Future

Telling student success stories like Ashley’s is important to the future of agricultural education, Jackman says.

“Advocacy is important, and there’s something for everyone to do,” he says. “These are elective, expensive programs, and there are no requirements that a school system have an ag ed program. So it’s vital that we all continue to show the value of keeping ag ed in our schools – through promoting the outstanding students who succeed academically, in agriculture and in their careers.”