Students learn critical nature of technology in agriculture
Can a group of rural Iowa high school students eradicate world hunger? Listening to the students in Jerry Driscoll’s class, you would have to think yes.
Conversations about hybrids, increased yields, drought tolerance – all in a school-day’s work where students question and challenge one another as they address world hunger.
Welcome to Driscoll’s agriculture class – actually called precision agriculture – where students receive heavy doses of technological training. This isn’t their grandfathers’ farms; it is truly 21st century.
“We have all sorts of technology that tell us what we need to be doing as farmers – from field and yield mapping to soil sampling and variable rate applications,” said Driscoll, who teaches agriculture at Sigourney High School. “This class puts it all together, showing students how the latest advances help optimize returns while preserving resources.”
This, in turn, readies the students for gainful employment in high-skill, high-wage jobs right in their own back yards.
It’s all a part of the Precision Ag Career Academy at the Keokuk County Career Academy, a regional center where students from four small rural school districts – Sigourney, Keota, Pekin and Tri County – are earning college credit and gaining invaluable industry experience in a growing field.
Precision Ag, also referred to as site-specific crop management, utilizes modern technologies to help growers more efficiently and effectively manage fields and respond to variability in crops. These technologies can include soil sampling, aerial imaging, and the use of external space-based or ground-based sensors. These advances in farming have created an increasing demand for skilled workers educated and trained in precision technologies.
“Through the academy, students get an earlier idea of what they do and don’t want to do while earning college credit,” said Driscoll, who also teaches at the academy. “Industry input ensures that students gain the knowledge and skills to fill local needs. By partnering, we are able to provide students with capital-intensive, advanced programming above and beyond what we can offer through the high school curriculum.”
Originally, Keokuk County wasn’t on the radar when Indian Hills Community College was seeking potential locations to host career academies. But former Sigourney and Tri-County superintendent Todd Abrahamson was a strong advocate for his students and community. He had been meeting with local industry about its specific workforce needs and how to build a better talent pipeline to fill them. A shared center providing access to all students in Keokuk County would enable the area school districts to expand specialized offerings to address the local skills gap.
Naysayers thought it couldn’t be done in rural Iowa, but Abrahamson was convinced that if done right, it could expand opportunities for students and strengthen both industry and community. Indian Hills Community College representatives also were convinced. Today the Keokuk County Career Academy includes pathways in welding, machine technology and health science in addition to precision agriculture.
Identifying and developing programs and getting the logistics of a shared center to the point of being operational wasn’t an easy task. School district administrators and educators worked closely with local business representatives and Indian Hills Community College to identify industry gaps and develop programs of study.
“It’s like a three-legged stool,” said Karen Swanson, director of high school programs at Indian Hills Community College. “Schools districts, the community college, and business and industry all need to be engaged and committed to seeing it through. If one doesn’t pull its weight, the proverbial stool collapses. The work isn’t complete just because the center opens.”
But all agree, providing students in their southeast Iowa communities more opportunities is worth the blood, sweat and tears. The collaboration to expand programs also falls in line with new state legislation to raise the quality of career and technical education programs, ensuring high school students graduate ready for college, training or careers.
“This is about expanding opportunities for students to be successful,” said Shannon Webb, principal at Sigourney High School. “We are introducing students to these high-growth industries and helping them gain the skills that industry requires. We wouldn’t be able to offer this many advanced classes on our own.”
The academy, which is open to high school juniors and seniors from the four districts, offers students college-level programming. Participating students spend half days taking classes at their respective high schools and half days at the academy.
Partnerships in business and industry are huge to the program’s success, starting with the instructor – Jerry Driscoll – who brings a wealth of knowledge and connections as a local farmer. Driscoll farms 1,500 acres organically with his family and has 300 Angus cows and 100 Hampshire sows, which is the oldest herd of Hampshire hogs in the United States.
“First and foremost, I am a farmer who also teaches,” Driscoll said. “Not only do I help my students apply their knowledge and abilities to solve real problems, I run class like an employer would. I expect them to be on time, have their work done, and be prepared to work hard when they arrive.”
Industry involvement from John Deere, Case, Kinze, Vermeer, Vision Ag and others provides students with more real-world experience and application and ensures they are on top of the innovation and advances in today’s modern agriculture industry.
A required internship during a student’s senior year provides more real-world application, and for many, turns into paying jobs.
The reasons for enrolling in the precision agriculture program vary by student.
Tri County student Noah McCammant aspires to study agriculture at Iowa State University.
“I would like to go into Ag Engineering,” Noah said. “Being part of the academy has made a big difference for me. It is hands on, and there are always open discussions. It forces you to come out of your shell.”
For Cole Brenneman from Keota, precision agriculture is in his blood.
“My uncles are farmers and they use GPS (Global Positioning Systems) to improve efficiency,” he said. “I am really interested in learning more and intend to study precision ag. at Kirkwood Community College.”
Sigourney student Hayley Abell, whose parents own the local sale barn, plans on some day taking over the business. Through the academy, she is earning college credit that she plans to transfer into Ellsworth Community College’s agriculture business program.
Students such as Noah, Cole and Hayley will leave the academy with a big head start on both two- and four-year degrees, saving them valuable time and money.
“It is possible for our students to graduate and have a full year or more of college-level coursework under the belts that they can transfer to Indian Hills, Iowa State, or other colleges and universities,” Webb said. “One of our former students transferred more than 30 credits and is studying ag business at Ellsworth Community College. And last year, we had a student transfer to Iowa State University as a second semester sophomore. The academy not only helped these students find their passion, it is a huge cost savings. They won’t have to borrow burdensome amounts of student loans to pay for college.”
Key components for regional center collaboration:
The three-legged stool approach
Transitioning the Keokuk County Career Academy from idea to execution, took the buy-in of local school districts, Indian Hills Community College, and business and industry.
“The biggest challenge is collaboration, but that is also its biggest strength,” said Karen Swanson, director of high school programs at Indian Hills Community College. “Collaboration is where you make the biggest impact.”
Be flexible and open-minded
There isn’t one model that works for everyone, and the center doesn’t reside in a vacuum – it’s always adapting to meet the needs of students and industry. The Precision Ag Academy, for example, originally focused specifically on geospatial technology. However, after the first year, industry input stressed the need for the program to be more ag-focused.
“One of the biggest challenges is finding the right approach, what the format looks like,” Swanson said. “It is important to be open and flexible in how programs are developed to find what works best for each program and geographic area.”
Keep educators in the loop
Change isn’t easy, but it is even harder when key parties are left in the dark.
“We worked hard to keep all teachers informed,” Webb said. “There was a general concern that a regional center would supplant high school programs. It was never a goal to take students away from their home schools. By working together, seven years later both programs are strong and robust.”
Communicating the benefits and opportunities that the center provides is on-going. Changes in school administration and families unaware of the advantages means that you have to continue to communicate and convince them that this is a great thing.
“Ag classes 20 years ago weren’t nearly as important as they are today,” Driscoll said. “The field has become more technology-driven, and there are fewer small family farms. That means we have students who come to the program without any farming background. The academy provides that.”
Engaging students by connecting secondary CTE, core academics, and postsecondary education with a strong industry focus is key to a successful career academy. Accomplishing this requires all parties have a place at the planning table. Each individual career academy at the Keokuk County Career Academy has its own advisory committee to guide programs of study, address challenges, and plan for the future.
“You have to build relationships with the community,” Driscoll said. “The ag. educators from each school district bring local industry community members to the advisory committee meetings. We get feedback on courses and programs of study and it ensures we are all aware of what is new in the ag. industry.”