Sustainable Agriculture Youth Education: Professional Dev. for Youth Program Leaders and Educators

Final Report for EW97-007

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1997: $100,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $134,206.00
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Jonda Crosby
Alternative Energy Resources Organization
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Project Information

Abstract:

AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Educators of Youth project was designed to model a community-based approach for educating leaders and educators of youth about sustainable agriculture, collaborative learning, and systems thinking. Multi-level learning was an essential component.

Community Educator Teams worked together to design and test learning materials through projects that explored sustainable agriculture concepts and practices. These teams successfully blazed the trail to help the educators and youth understand the interconnectedness of people, community, environment and agriculture; engage educators and youth in systems thinking, community action, and collaborative learning; and catalyze new partnerships between educators, community members and organizations, farmers, ranchers, and youth.

Members of the Leadership Team, Community Educator Teams and participating youth worked together to develop, implement and track project progress. We called this multilevel vehicle for learning and deepening everyone’s understanding of sustainable agriculture a “continuum of learning.”

AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Educators of Youth Project ambitiously set out to achieve long-term change through a short-term project. The project objectives included influencing teaching methodology, modifying problem-solving processes, changing opinions about sustainable agriculture, and effecting institutional change. AERO and other key statewide agriculture organizations and community educators took the widest possible approach to engage agriculture educators in a sustainable education project process that would intentionally involve their entire community, but more importantly, the youth they work with.

These diverse community educator teams involved Agriculture Education teachers at high school and college levels; special education and science teachers; leaders and youth involved in 4-H and FFA; farmers and ranchers; local business owners; local Extension agents; VISTA volunteers, and other citizens interested in sustainable agriculture and community development.

Project Objectives:
Objectives:

Build the capacity of educators to teach sustainable agriculture to youth and to their peers.

Strengthen institutional support for sustainable agriculture education.

Design and test a model “continuum of learning” in sustainable agriculture.

Disseminate the continuum of sustainable agriculture learning materials and the community- based train-the-trainers model that will result from this project.

Project Components:

Continuum of Learning:
The continuum of learning was envisioned as an alternative to a curriculum, where educators and students could choose materials and tools according to their interests, needs, knowledge, skills, and progress to create individualized education programs. It would include a variety of sustainable agriculture and systems-thinking teaching materials drawn from existing educational programs and created by project participants.

The Continuum is a dynamic method of learning that lends itself to Sustainable Agriculture education and is complemented by resources all participants bring to the table. The continuum of resources is a diverse collection of people, teaching tools including lesson plans, study materials, case studies, hands-on projects and links ranging from local to global resources. Educators and students will be able to pick and choose from the continuum resources.

Leadership Team:
The Leadership Team was an umbrella group of state-level administrators of agriculture and youth programs, representing Montana State University (MSU) Agricultural Education, MSU Cooperative Agriculture Extension Service (4-H), NRCS, Montana Department of Agriculture, AERO, the Down Home Project, and other nonprofit organizations working in sustainable agriculture. The Leadership Team collaboratively implemented all aspects of the program and provided institutional support for the Educator Teams.

Community Educator Teams:
Community Educator Teams – including educators, community representatives, and students – worked together at the community level to design and test learning materials and approaches that:
help youth understand the interconnectedness of people, community, environment, and agriculture;
engage youth in systems thinking, community action, and collaborative learning; and,
catalyze new partnerships among educators, community members, organizations, farmers, ranchers, and youth.

Introduction:
Introduction:

In 1996 AERO conducted a state-wide survey to find out the level of interest for a sustainable agriculture educators project. We contacted extension agents, AERO members, NRCS educators and high school agricultural teachers to assess their level of understanding and interest in having sustainable agriculture (SA) materials and learning be part of their future teaching. Not surprisingly, this survey indicated many core issues a project of this scope would need to address in order to be successful.

Key survey responses included:

4-H program projects use industrial agriculture model,

access to sustainable materials may be limiting factor for project success,

sustainable agriculture is controversial like organic,

sustainable agriculture is a problem — there is deep prejudice and thinking that there is no money in it,

most educators indicated that very little sustainable agriculture information is being used,

4-H, FFA programs are one-dimensional, lack a “system thinking” approach, and

some educators use sustainable agriculture materials but do not call it that.

A summary of this survey was presented to key agriculture institutional partners and educators to both point out the gaps their institutional educational programming had with regard to sustainable agriculture and to solicit their ideas and support for addressing those gaps in a SARE Professional Development proposal. Core discussions relating to the survey findings were the premise from which this project grew.

To tackle the range of ideas expressed through the original survey, AERO and other key statewide agriculture organizations and community educators took the widest possible approach to engage agriculture educators in a sustainable education project process that would intentionally involve their entire community, but more importantly, the youth they work with.

Key institutional partners and community educators recommended that a sustainable agriculture professional development initiative for educators would need the following core elements to be successful:

the project must be participatory and include state, county and community educators and youth;

the SA materials developed and shared must be practical, easily incorporated into existing educational structures and processes, at any level of community education;

sustainable materials being promoted must include “agriculture” in the biggest sense of it, encompassing wildlife, environment, food — the true picture of the system, not just compartmentalized pieces;

do not attempt to compare conventional agriculture to sustainable agriculture, and

leadership and capacity building skills, holistic thinking and opportunities for new ways of working toward sustainable solutions with practical examples would be critical elements whether the participant was an Extension agent, 4-H leader, high school teacher or community youth educator.

Based on these recommendations, members of the Leadership Team, Community Educator Teams and participating youth worked together to develop, implement and track project progress. We called this multi-level vehicle for learning and deepening everyone’s understanding of sustainable agriculture; a “continuum of learning.”

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

“AERO is the glue that holds this group together. AERO’s leadership made our meetings a safe place for team members to come and share their diverse viewpoints and experiences. As we do, we find we have more in common than we originally thought. Coalitions of this sort depend on a leader who has a truly collaborative and inclusive style about them. ”
Meta Boyer, Montana Department of Agriculture, Leadership Team member

AERO’s Educators of Youth project developed a model community-based approach to educating leaders and educators of youth about sustainable agriculture, collaborative learning and systems thinking.

How did the project leaders set up learning opportunities for project participants to instigate sustainable agriculture teaching in their community education teams?

The project Leadership Team was strategically designed to include individuals who could influence institutional change. As Leadership Team members worked together and developed personal trust and professional respect, they began to strengthen the stance of their own institutions with regard to sustainable agriculture. Leadership Team members included folks from the Montana Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, Montana State University Cooperative Extension 4-H and Agriculture Education Departments, and the Bitterroot Downhome Project.

The project Team Leaders set up a small grants program to solicit projects from community educators across the state. This small grants program required the Leadership Team to develop, evaluate and implement a community-based educator team model that centered on sustainable agriculture principles for teaching youth about sustainable agriculture ideas.

In 1998, five Community Educator Teams pilots were funded through a small grants program. Each community Educator Team was required to have at least four educators, community members and youth participants. Community Educator Teams worked together to design and test learning materials through projects that explored sustainable agriculture concepts and practices. These teams successfully blazed the trail to help the educators and youth understand the interconnectedness of people, community, environment and agriculture; engage educators and youth in systems thinking, community action, and collaborative learning; and catalyze new partnerships between educators, community members and organizations, farmers, ranchers, and youth.

By 1999, the network of Community Educator Teams expanded to include 12 teams across Montana. Experienced teams played a key role in training the new teams and recruiting educator and community project leaders. The success and challenges experienced by the teams fed directly back to the Leadership Team, which then refined the program, creating an ever-evolving working model that encompassed the diversity of sustainable agriculture education.

Community Educator Teams were enlisted who were intentionally diverse both in scope of sustainable work they proposed to pursue and also in the participants they intended to include. Leadership Team members purposefully picked strong community team leaders to be the first projects so they would then be the model all other teams would follow. A couple of the early community educator teams were established sustainable educators whom we asked to reach out into their community to include traditional educators to work on their proposed projects. More importantly, perhaps, were the early collaborators from high school ag programs who were doing innovative work that wouldn’t normally be considered sustainable agriculture, yet the leadership team thought they would make good project partners. This strategy paid off; the early teams were innovative, active, productive and highly committed.

Projects supported through the small grants program included such diverse issue areas as: cereal-legume cropping systems, horticulture, vermiculture, and community gardening. Teams involved Agriculture Education teachers at high school and college levels; special education and science teachers; leaders and youth involved in 4-H and FFA; farmers and ranchers; local business owners; Extension agents; VISTA volunteers, and citizens interested in sustainable agriculture education.

Originally the “learning continuum” was conceived of as a sustainable agriculture teaching unit composed of materials and tools drawn from existing educational programs and created by project participants. During the course of this project, the Leadership Team has evolved from seeing the continuum as materials and a web site to adopting the bigger concept of sustainable agriculture in all its facets as the operating system for the entire project. This change in perception began gradually as the team was designing the web site, gathering teaching resources and identifying links. Whereas the team’s original focus was on farming practices and systems, working with the Educator Teams began shifting that emphasis toward marketing, youth enterprises and other issues of community sustainability. Providing resources for the Educator Teams and observing the connections formed by their projects brought the theory into practice. As a model several core pieces are important to remember when using this concept in new communities.

Encouraging team participation in every aspect of program development and implementation. Leadership Team members designed the goals and objectives of the program long before it was funded. Once funded by SARE, team members have written press releases and the Educator Team “request for proposals.” They helped Josh Turner, the Evaluator, identify and prioritize the evaluation criteria. They have shared and networked information and resources. They designed and led the first training workshop for Educator Teams. Each team member also mentored one Community Educator Team. The teams’ mentoring role with Educator Teams is, perhaps, the most important way they demonstrate institutional support for community-based projects.

“When we gathered at the start of project, I was unsure what I was in for, what our purpose was. I think it’s been an amazing process to look how this group of people has come together through a common interest in agriculture. We’ve grown to respect one another. I think we can hold this up as a model to other organizations. The mix of people changes. We’re a diverse group of people pulling together for a common purpose. The real discussion began when we looked at the Educator Team applications and tried to understand how they were ‘sustainable.’ The projects helped us understand.” – Leadership Team member

Training the Trainers Workshops:
The design of this part of the project was based on the assumption that people learn best about sustainable agriculture when they work in collaborative groups in their own communities. Rather than “those who know” training “those who don’t”, the agricultural professionals in this project were teaching themselves and each other about sustainable agriculture.

The Leadership Team held annual workshops for project participants. Workshops highlighted whole systems thinking exercises. We used AERO’s sustainable education curriculum, sustainable ag education trunk and other national resources, games like “It’s our community” and tools such as “mind mapping” to involve and engage workshop participants in planning their own projects, and education materials. Leadership Team members also led discussions on such topics as “what’s sustainable; what’s sustainable agriculture?” The workshops also included media training sessions so that project participants could share what they were learning through regular outreach strategies.

The Leadership Team tested the “train-the-trainers” model at the project’s first workshop for Educator Teams on August 17 – 18, 1998 in Bozeman, Montana. Each member of the Leadership Team designed and led at least one session at the workshop. This sharpened each team member’s understanding of sustainable agriculture and ability to communicate it to others. By leading the sessions, the Leadership Team enhanced its credibility among Community Educator Teams as a resource for information and technical assistance. In addition, the Leadership Team decided that each session at the workshop needed to model collaborative learning as a vehicle for community education. As a result, each session was highly interactive, tapping into the knowledge, perspectives, skills and talents of each participant.

Each Community Educator team brought to the workshop 2 to 5 representatives, including one youth. The workshop included sessions on systems thinking, team building, work plan development, principles of sustainable agriculture, lesson planning and learning to use the World Wide Web (Attachment VI). Overall the workshop was a success. All workshop sessions were rated above average. Educator Team members had the following to say about the workshop:

Although a success, the first workshop’s evaluation resulted in a number of ideas on how to improve the next one: 1) Involve more youth. 2) Incorporate sustainable learning materials developed by Community Educator Teams into the workshop. 3) Educator Teams need to lead some of the sessions in subsequent workshops that Leadership Team members led at the first workshop. Having worked on a project, they will be in a good position to lead the work planning and lesson planning sessions. 4) Include more time for project planning. The workshop gave Educator Teams a better understanding of the purpose of the program. As a result, teams saw a need to revise and expand their workplans.

The Leadership Team invested in an participatory evaluation process that tracked learning and understanding as well as ideas on how to continually improve the project as it progressed. We set up a mid point and final evaluation process to track core project progress and needs for improvement.

Outreach and Publications

Publications and Outreach

“The beauty of the community education approach is that it’s possible to involve any age. Our vision keeps getting bigger. How can we take this and pass it on to other people to use? It’s a self-perpetuating approach.” – Community Educator Team member, Helena

Several modes of dissemination were facilitated by a host of vehicles:

Written Materials included:
Montana’s Sustainable Agriculture: Farming with Foresight. by Kerry Wall-MacLane. 71 pages. An eight-part interdisciplinary curriculum for educators of fourth through sixth grade students. Includes sections on Montana’s agricultural history, production, soil, pests, livestock and crops. Uses class discussion, hands-on activities, a guide to field trips at farms across Montana, a video on sustainable agriculture, and a trunk of materials. $15 borrowing fee for trunk. $12.00 for curriculum.

A project Website was developed:
Project Website is: www.oats.itrc.umt.edu

Educational Materials Notebook was developed for use at the biennial workshops, including: systems thinking exersises, mind mapping etc.

A library of national sustainable agriculture education materials were collected and are housed at AERO.

In addition the project participants employed the following methods for sharing and dissemination of sustainable agriculture education materials:

Leadership Team members were the core for early dissemination of sustainable education materials first to one another and then to Community Education teams. The first set of seasoned Community Educator Teams trained the next set of Community Educator Teams at workshops, by visiting each other’s projects and sharing resources and practical knowledge and ideas. Each subsequent set of Community Educator Teams modified and refined the workshop training design, the Community Grant RFP and their own learning continuum materials to meet changing needs of their communities and the projects as a whole. Once we had the projects linked electronically we all had the capacity and efficiency to share sustainable education materials and resources quickly and economically .

In addition, project participants shared widely within their constituency groups. For example the Gallatin Gateway youth started as a small group of eight students, but by the second year they were teaching school garden lessons to several classes at their elementary school.

The project workshops were excellent opportunities to share project progress and new materials partners were using. SARE’s sustainable agriculture landscape poster was one such resource we shared with all project participants.

How efficient was information dissemination through print and broadcast media?
During the second year of the project we started a newsletter to highlight project progress. In addition, AERO and others began to write feature stories on the community projects in our own communications publications. In that way the state FFA newsletter, MSU’s communications director and other local publications were publishing results from the project.

Internal project print communications were efficient and effective. A range of useful information was communicated through friendly and imaginative regular project newsletters. External communication, however, was a weak link in the project. Some local projects, such as Victor and Judith Gap, successfully achieved local media exposure as well. Others, such as the Pony project , had little media coverage.

The project’s professional development workshops included a very popular and highly-rated session on press-release writing and working with the media; however, Community Educator Teams would have liked to see more coverage generated from AERO.

Several presentations about the project work was shared through such annual conferences as The Montana Environmental Educators’ Association and at the annual agricultural teachers in service training. In hindsight a power point presentation could have been developed that highlighted all the projects and used by everyone as a template to share the project outcomes would have been good use of resources.

How valuable were the educational workshops?;
The workshops were immensely valuable because they were the primary vehicle for orienting participants to the project and for enhancing educators’ capacity to teach sustainable agriculture. The project tours were critical to Leadership Team’s understanding of project progress and helped to solidify the relationship between the Leadership Team and the Educator Teams. Educator Teams also found project tours to be useful for information exchange. For example, Pony and Gallatin Gateway added vermiculture to their projects as a result of a presentation by the Montana Worm Ranch Victor and Helena were extremely interested in Gallatin Gateway’s commercial grade weed mat and Gallatin Gateway asked Conrad to sample the soil in the new garden plot. Upon touring the Gateway Garden of Youth, a community leader from Pony remarked, “It makes me want to landscape our school!”

“The showcase provided an opportunity to learn from others about their projects. This is a way communities can continue to learn and build sustainable agriculture after this project.” Leadership Team member

“Training the Trainers” Workshops: The Leadership Team used extension’s standby “train-the-trainers” model at the second workshop for Educator Teams, held March 19 – 20, 1999 in Great Falls. The increased number of young people in attendance and the enthusiasm of the adults involved made for an exciting event! Leadership Team members designed and led the sessions, often working in teams. The evaluations from the first workshop in 1998 led to format modifications so that sessions that stimulated creativity and critical thinking were interspersed with team-building activities.

The highly interactive sessions focused on how to use systems thinking to plan projects and identify how our decisions affect our communities. Workshop highlights included presentations by three of the original Educator Teams, the impressive insights youth exhibited in the problem-solving groups, and brainstorming sessions that participants rated as extremely helpful. As in the first workshop, the session designed to explain sustainable agriculture lacked clarity and was difficult to present. Alternative teaching methods used at the second workshop included hands-on activities from AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Educational Trunk. Small groups took turns trying activities and experiments from the trunk during the evening session. Participants “learned by doing” and had fun too. Leadership Team members learned as much as they taught and enhanced their visibility among Educator Teams as a resource for information and technical assistance. Overall, the workshop was a success. All workshop sessions were rated above average.

How efficient and effective was information dissemination via the world wide web? ;
The website was a continuing frustration.
Given the ambitious scope of this project, the relatively concrete objective of making a useful variety of sustainable agriculture tools and materials available to educators over the Internet should have been a slam-dunk. It certainly started out strong, with state-of-the-art professional design and programming, and careful attention to the needs of the end-users. Yet it was the project’s most frustrating shortcoming. Limited staff and contractor availability, technical obstacles, and Educator Team lack of familiarity with the Internet all contributed to difficulties getting the website up and running in time to effectively test its utility as part of this project. However on an individual level several community projects did develop their own websites which were very informative and valuable to the community, project and others trying to do similar work in their communities.

While use of the Internet was efficient and effective, the project website was the least efficient and effective program component. Despite a strong start, the project website did not materialize until very late in the project. The project website, buried within the University of Montana OATS (On-line Academic Tool kit System) site, was difficult to locate and included no features that identified it as part of AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Youth Education Project.

However, by the end of the project, 19 lesson plans (including at least one from each Educator Team) had been posted on the website. Lesson plans span all grade levels and are suitable for science, math, and agriculture-related lessons. Curricula have been formatted for consistency and edited to a single page for ease of use.

AERO will move the website to its own web pages in 2003. Leadership Team members (especially those who are also members of AERO) are committed to adding sustainable materials. They have contacted the national SARE program to include all the curriculum materials Kim Kroll is collecting and evaluating as well.

Because of the large size of our state and the distance between projects, the project relied heavily on information dissemination over the Internet. The Project Coordinator regularly used electronic technology to post meeting notices, distribute minutes, send newsletters, and communicate with AERO staff. Mentors and Educator Teams often communicated via e-mail because it is the most reliable way to reach teachers.

Some of the resources are housed on the project website at: oats.itrc.umt.edu. The site was developed in collaboration between the Leadership Team, the Montana Department of Commerce and the Information Technology Resource Center (ITRC) at the University of Montana. The bulk of the work that went into designing the behind-the-scenes database and program is done.
The site features state-of-the art programming for interactive Web sites. In fact, ITRC is using it as a showcase model as it trains others on how to develop similar sites nationally and internationally.

The site was set up to be:

Decentralized and easily accessible. Educator Teams could add their own lesson plans to the site as well as edit and download them from any computers with Internet access. The decentralized nature of the site put responsibility for making it a success into the hands of all program participants.

User-friendly. The interface between users and the database program is user-friendly. People do not need to be technical experts to enter data onto the site. Technical aspects are handled by the program running the behind-the-scenes database. The site leads users uploading learning materials through a step-by-step data-entry process. The end result is a well designed and formatted lesson plan.

Quality controlled. Entries to the site are evaluated by a gatekeeper before they are activated into cyberspace. This gatekeeper ensures that learning materials meet the quality standards of the program. The Logistics Coordinator serves this role.

Searchable. Users can easily catalogue and search for information on the site. Eventually the site will include hyper-links to other sustainable agriculture sites.

Despite the initial training at all the workshops, the teams definitely needed more technical assistance with this component of the project. The Leadership Team also provided follow-up “house calls” to Educator Teams offering additional Web training and assistance, and hired a college student to help Educator Teams upload their materials onto the Web site, neither of which proved very useful.

Dissemination of project results has also has occurred within SARE’s national website. AERO has shared project results to others interested in the project design and outcomes with folks in Alaska, Iowa and Pennsylvania to date. In addition projects such as Victor’s Green Thumb community Education Team produced a video about their project result that has been used extensively by other school teachers to gain support for starting a similar project in their schools. One student appeared on the “Tonight Show” after he won a National FFA Award for his community educator project in Judith Gap, MT. And A local college student presented her senior thesis at the National Community Gardens Conference in Atlanta GE.

Outcomes and impacts:

“The community team approach goes deeper than education. It’s not just about teaching students about sustainable agriculture. As a result of a community team approach, students won’t just take a test about agriculture; students will understand first hand the importance of agriculture and communicate it to other people. Think about it. We’re building ambassadors for agriculture!” – Community Educator Team leader, Gallatin Gateway

All of the participating Community Educators found value in the community team approach and use of sustainable agriculture materials and ideas, and plan to continue using them. It is important to note that the school teachers who participated in this project are all experienced and confident in their teaching abilities. University instructors who train future teachers speculate that a community team approach might be intimidating and uncomfortable for new teachers who are just learning to exercise tools for class control, lesson progression, and performance assessment. On the other hand, a community team approach can rekindle passion for the profession in long-time teachers. The success of the approach may depend on the confidence and experience of the participating teachers.

As a direct result of this project, eight schools are now using sustainable materials developed during the course of this project. Teachers are talking about food, food production, and food systems, not just science. Educators and project leaders share responses to project success and understading below.

“You can’t just pull down pieces of the learning continuum like cans off the shelf. I think we believed this was possible when we started. The fact is that everybody has to move through the stages of the process. They have to start from where they are. They can’t just jump ahead. The Educator Teams are a good example. The projects accomplished and understood the tangible first phase, the ag science and practice; but we’ve had to help move them along to other stages.”
Meta Boyer, Department of Agriculture, Leadership Team member

The level of institutional and community support, participation and commitment was impressive.

For example:

The Montana State University agriculture education program is advocating a community garden concept to provide experience for agriculture teachers in collaboration with elementary teachers. (The Helena Community Garden project will be a resource for this program.)

On the organizational level, representatives of the institutions involved on the Leadership Team and Educator Teams have a much deeper understanding of sustainable agriculture, and increased awareness and a much greater willingness to work with AERO. The project resulted in a new-found collegial relationship among project participants that probably would not have otherwise developed.

Community Educator teams have formed partnerships with numerous organizations including School To Work, the Montana Environmental Education Association, the Montana Historical Society and the State Office of Public Instruction.

Eight Montana schools have incorporated sustainable agriculture education in their curriculum.

Schools in Victor, Gallatin Gateway, and Helena contributed land to be used for demonstration gardens. The community of Pony contributed land for the weed control enclosures.

In Victor and Gallatin Gateway, the school cafeterias now use produce from the greenhouse and garden.

Every Community Educator Team had extensive support for their projects from both community partnerships and institutions. One example follows:

Manhattan/Park Tilapia Project Partners: The two schools collaborated with the Fish Technology Center at Montana State University to develop feeds using agriculture by-products such as cull potatoes and animal waste. The Fish Technology Center donated a fingerling/breeding tank system including pumps and tanks. The students involved in the project went into grade schools to educate younger students, hosted a community fish fry, and worked with a local business to develop a marketing plan. They also helped a student from another school start a tilapia project as an independent study project.

Members representing “traditional” and “sustainable” agriculture found ways to work together to promote education about sustainable agriculture by avoiding obstacles, sidestepping land mines, and focusing on common ground. Early in its work, the Leadership Team discovered that attempting to define “sustainable agriculture” was not advancing the project; participants refused to be drawn in to arguments about degrees of sustainability. Instead, the Leadership Team focused on the common ground of promoting sustainable systems and sustainable communities. They accomplished this primary by thinking and talking in terms of “systems,” effectively modeling the systems-thinking element of the grant proposal. One of Leadership Team’s earliest and wisest decisions was to agree on a basis for considering Educator Team proposals.

“The open-mindedness of the Leadership Team helped us support a wide range of projects. It kept us from limiting ourselves to projects that seemed safe.” – Leadership Team member

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

“We have impacted high school educators, because some of them are beginning to think about sustainable agriculture. Three years ago, you couldn’t even talk about it. But, I don’t have any way to quantify the change… I’m intrigued by it. I’ve learned from this project, and I’ll apply some things from it in my own classes.” – Leadership Team member

The project has created a much deeper understanding for educators of youth, community participants, youth and project leaders to understand, appreciate, use and develop sustainable agriculture education materials tools, resources, processes and a network to support educator thinking, teaching, and sharing sustainable agriculture.

Twelve community education teams involved over 50 adult educator and leader participants and 170 youth participants. Community education teams explored specific sustainable agriculture issues relative to their communities’ need, as an ongoing effort or as a particular interest of the participating youth or lead educator participants. Community education projects were funded with small grants to help educators collect materials and resources, attend conferences and trainings, develop educational materials for curriculum building like websites and to promote their project outcomes.

Diverse participants, project emphasis and geographic areas within Montana were represented in the project. Projects ranged from an alternative to chemicals weed team community educator in Pony to the development of an entrepreneurial FFA project called the “Montana Worm Ranch” in Judith Gap.

State-wide leadership was provided by a core group of diverse stakeholders representing state agencies, nonprofits and land grant participants. This true partnership — the first of its kind in Montana — shared project management, outcomes, meeting facilitation, workshop planning, an evaluation process and plan as well as the implementation of an innovative state-wide sustainable education effort.

Extensive match resources were provided from institutional and community educators to extend the project over a three-and-a-half-year span by matching the grant resources nearly 1:1.

All of the community education projects leveraged additional local and federal funds. For example, the Helena Community Garden was awarded a $750 grant of seed and equipment from the National Community Gardening Association. Operation Green Thumb in Victor was recognized for their Native Plant project and awarded a scholarship for one of the members of the team to attend the Natural History Center’s summer camp. Operation Green Thumb was also awarded a grant of $33,000 from the Montana School-to-Work Program. Several teams also received funding from their communities to expand their local work.

The effectiveness of the “community-based model” described in the grant proposal centers on the effectiveness of the community team approach. This project demonstrated that a community team approach is a very successful and well-received technique for building the capacity of educators to create and implement sustainable agriculture programming for youth. The success of this approach in 12 very different community projects suggests that the “community-based model” can be successfully replicated in other communities.

The project leaders designed, implemented and used a participatory and comprehensive evaluation that helped set, measure and adjust to project needs as information was collected, reviewed and shared.

The project did develop a successful network of educator teams across the state involving educators and community volunteers from 4-H, high school agriculture, science, and elementary teachers.

We developed a process for sharing educator team progress and successes through workshops, newsletters, an email listserve, quarterly project meetings, media coverage of project work, site visits and mentorship of community education projects.

This project had three levels of participation that were intentionally interwoven so that every component of learning could be shared, experimented with and modeled to the rest of the group.

We designed the project to represent and include a diverse educator base with geographic representation of project leaders.

Originally the “learning continuum” was conceived of as a sustainable agriculture teaching unit composed of materials and tools drawn from existing educational programs and created by project participants.

During the course of this project, the Leadership Team has evolved from seeing the continuum as materials and a web site to adopting the bigger concept of sustainable agriculture in all its facets as the operating system for the entire project. This change in perception began gradually as the team was designing the web site, gathering teaching resources and identifying links. Whereas the team’s original focus was on farming practices and systems, working with the Educator Teams began shifting that emphasis toward marketing, youth enterprises and other issues of community sustainability. Providing resources for the Educator Teams and observing the connections formed by their projects brought the theory into practice. As a model several core pieces are important to remember when using this concept in new communities.

Significant aspects of the continuum of learning model include:

Modeling the principles of shared leadership, collaboration and inclusiveness in leadership behavior are critical. The agencies and organizations represented on the Leadership Team have not always seen eye-to-eye on agricultural issues and educational methods. Responsible for the oversight of the program, AERO staff provided a leadership style that helped unify these diverse groups.

Members representing “traditional” and “sustainable” agriculture found ways to work together to promote education about sustainable agriculture by avoiding obstacles, sidestepping land mines, and focusing on common ground.

Early in its work, the Leadership Team discovered that attempting to define “sustainable agriculture” was not advancing the project; participants refused to be drawn in to arguments about degrees of sustainability. Instead, the Leadership Team focused on the common ground of promoting sustainable systems and sustainable communities. They accomplished this primary by thinking and talking in terms of “systems,” effectively modeling the systems-thinking element of the grant proposal. One of Leadership Team’s earliest and wisest decisions was to agree on a basis for considering Educator Team proposals (Attachment VIII).

“The open-mindedness of the Leadership Team helped us support a wide range of projects. It kept us from limiting ourselves to projects that seemed safe.” – Leadership Team member

Professional development programs for leaders and educators of youth must involve youth as equal partners. Leadership Team and Educator Team members advocate that the project include youth if it is they whom you hope to impact. They argue that a program intended to model collaborative learning and systems thinking must view youth as learning partners. As a result, this project is nurturing the development of youth as well as adults as sustainable agriculture educators.

The community aspect of the program offers people a comfortable entry point into learning more about sustainable agriculture. People form groups to do what they can’t do alone. Groups work against isolation and mitigate the risk people feel when trying something new. Groups multiply the rate of learning, as each person brings unique skills and knowledge. Groups leverage more support from local technical assistance providers and institutions than individuals.

Use of a diverse Leadership Team is critical for buy-in of educators. No project partner alone could have had the impact all partners working together did!

“The use of the Leadership Team concept has greatly helped to bring together statewide organizations to advance sustainable agriculture.” Will Kissenger, Department of Agriculture

The Leadership Team has creatively explored sustainable agriculture concepts and embraced the far-reaching connections the project is encountering. The high levels of respect, honesty and curiosity displayed by team members is evident in their work and is attracting more members.

The addition of high school science teacher Nathan Beckwith and organic dryland farmer Bob Boettcher represents a vision for the sustainability beyond the life of the project, recently developed by the Leadership Team. The team envisions a cycle where, just as experienced Educator Teams help train new teams, some professional members of teams will serve a term on the Leadership Team.

Mentoring of Community Educator Teams was a critical component for success.
Evaluations of Educator Teams have consistently rated the mentoring by Leadership Team members one of the most effective components of the program. Unfortunately, the time constraints of many of the Leadership Team members prevented us from satisfying the mentoring needs of all of the Educator Teams. Expanding the size of the Leadership Team earlier in the project would have addressed this need.

Flexibility is critical for success:
Teaching the wide range of concepts involved in sustainable agriculture is difficult to “get a handle on,” but the Continuum of Learning approach has proved flexible enough to work well.

The project was modified to create a learning model flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of sustainable agriculture issues and viewpoints. The Leadership Team made significant infrastructure changes to meet the emerging needs of the project, such as changing organizational responsibilities when necessary. The excellent evaluation process has continuously encouraged the team to question whether they are practicing the systems thinking they are seeking to teach and has provided regular feedback from the Educator Teams. As evaluations showed the teams needed more on-site visits, the budget was modified to allow more travel by the evaluator and AERO and MSU staff. When AERO experienced a staff turnover, the team reworked the job description of MSU’s graduate student, Lauri Olson, increasing her involvement from Logistics Coordinator to Project Coordinator. All these changes have deepened commitments by leadership team members and strengthened the project overall.

Results from Educator Teams in the field led the Leadership Team to modify the requirements placed on the teams to develop critical thinking in the design and evaluation of their projects. The Request for Proposals was changed to include questions on systems thinking and sustainability. Teams must now include producers, conduct a web search before beginning their project and file periodic reports electronically. Funding to community education teams will not be completely released until a final report is received. Teams wishing to move to a second stage in their projects must provide information addressing the financial sustainability, accessibility to other educators, their definition of sustainable agriculture and create a community partnerships model that identifies the economic, political, and social systems linked to or affected by their program.

Collaboration at every level important for sustainable agriculture learning at every level.
In an effort to encourage collaboration and information transfer, teams with similar projects were offered financial assistance to meet and travel to each other’s communities. The Leadership Team budgeted $50 for each community garden project leader to attend a collaborative meeting and assistance was offered for networking with a community garden on the Crow Reservation and the greenhouse operated by the Tribal College at Fort Peck. Similarly, $100 was budgeted for the Pony and Stevensville weed teams to visit each other’s communities. In addition, leadership team meetings are held at community education team sites each quarter, so we can get an in-depth appreciation for the work going on in local communities, share resources and build relationships with the whole education team.

Participatory and periodic evaluation is critical.
In response to this mid-point evaluation, the Leadership Team made immediate and significant modifications to the project.

Resources that are place-based were most important for Community Educator Teams.
On the practice level, the continuum of resources satisfied the requirements of the Educator Teams. With help from the Leadership Team, Educator Teams assembled their own collections of sustainable agriculture tools and materials that would later be incorporated in lesson plans and posted to the project website. These individualized collections were effective tools for teaching and learning about sustainable agriculture. This gives the Leadership Team confidence that the electronic medium could be valuable if educators receive help and encouragement to use it.

Leadership Team members brought sustainable agriculture materials and resources to meetings to share. As a result, resources such as sustainable agriculture websites, ATTRA, National SARE, other sustainable agriculture organizations, and land grant colleges doing sustainable agriculture work became part of participants’ resource portfolios. Over time, all of us have broadened our thinking about sustainable agriculture and knowledge about resources we can share with others. This kind of activity also helped build common ground and respect among team members.

All Educator Teams note institutional as well as social impacts on their community beyond the scope of their projects.

The success of the Helena Community Garden has prompted several entrepreneurs to initiate a large community-based, child-centered collaborative called “Community Works.”

The Judith Gap Worm Ranch spawned a local mushroom business and instilled a recycling ethic in the community.

The Children’s Community Garden introduced Native American children to gardening, an activity outside their traditional Sioux culture, and “planted the seeds” of healthier eating and living in a severely depressed community.

The Web of Big Sandy is demonstrating to “traditional” agriculture families that sustainable practices are workable in their agricultural community.

The Park/Manhattan Tilapia project has fostered stronger relationships between the schools and communities by involving community members in planning, marketing, and enjoying the fruits of their labors at an annual Tilapia Fish Fry.

The Golden Crop Diversifiers in Conrad are uniting their agricultural community by focusing on soil health rather than condemning herbicide use.

By enlisting children and using friendly livestock, the Pony community education team has attracted the entire community to participate in noxious weed eradication on old mine tailings and dump sites.

Through its Weed Whacking Wethers, Stevensville succeeded in uniting federal, state, and local government agencies to address their community noxious weed problem.

State and national recognition of the projects and participants added significant credibility to the projects, which in turn helped projects draw attention and support from institutions as well.

Citizens of Helena and Gallatin Gateway were proud when the local projects received a grant from the National Gardening Association.

Citizens of Judith Gap were thrilled when Larrie Faulkner won the a national FFA award.

Carroll College student leader Kendra Williams also added credibility to the Helena project when she was selected to present her senior thesis on educational methods and models for working with youth at the National Community Gardens Conference in Atlanta. Kendra’s involvement in the Community Garden and in the Helena community gained her additional recognition when she was named one of four recipients of the 2000 Governor’s Award for Civic Engagement.

Developing a working model that can be used nationally to integrate sustainable agriculture into mainstream thinking among agricultural educators of youth.

Helping youth develop successful and sustainable economic enterprises. Several examples from this project point to the usefulness of sustainable agriculture’s economic leg as a powerful tool to demonstrate the equally important community and practice components necessary for a truly sustainable project. Nathan Beckwith of Victor’s Operation Green Thumb team says, “The project has helped educators use sustainable agriculture ideas by showcasing a successful school-based enterprise that could be modeled in other communities.”

Building bridges between ag institutions, community educators, community members and youth.

Agriculture educators are now working more closely with their land grant educators to develop community based education materials that fit their local needs. The Talapia community project in Livingston is now available to all ag educators through MSU.

Helping community groups leverage funds for sustainable agriculture education projects. Overall $40,000 additional dollars were raised by local community educator teams to carry out their local projects.

Broadening the definition of what constitutes agriculture in Montana, and helping educators and youth understand the role sustainable agriculture plays in their community’s economy.

Using the web to help educators discover the wide array of available materials on sustainability.

A Community Team approach is effective.
Easily the most successful, effective, and well-received project element was the “community team” approach to designing and implementing sustainable agriculture programming for youth. All across the state, teachers, parents, and students welcomed the opportunity to collaborate in designing and working on projects that caught and held student interest.

A systems approach makes sense.
Participants struggled with the term “systems thinking,” but almost instinctively understood the notions of interconnectivity and cause-and-effect. The Leadership Team found systems thinking to be a useful approach to sustainable agriculture. Also, the Educator Teams delighted in exercises that offered opportunities to explore the systems connected to their projects and to examine their projects in new lights.

Educators gained skills and tools for teaching sustainable agriculture.

The project also succeeded in building the capacity of educators to teach sustainable agriculture. This happened most effectively through the professional development workshops and one-to-one mentoring rather than through “discovery,” as the project proposal anticipated. While the students may be eager to try a different way, the educators learned best in structured situations where they were expecting to learn.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Potential Contributions:

“I have seen, firsthand, the tremendous success this program has had at bringing diverse agricultural agencies, teachers and students together to achieve common goals.”
Community Educator Team member

Nathan Beckwith of Victor’s Operation Green Thumb team says, “The project has helped educators use sustainable agriculture ideas by showcasing a successful school-based enterprise that could be modeled in other communities.”

Potential Long-term Contributions from this project include:

This is a working model that can be used nationally to integrate sustainable agriculture into mainstream thinking among agricultural educators of youth.

Working with youth on projects that have a economic emphasis like the Montana Worm Ranch and the Crop Diversifyers of Conrad, proved to be ideal vehicles for the broader conversations and thinking about the social and practice components of sustaiable agriculture.

Building bridges between ag institutions, community educators, community members and youth.

Agriculture educators are now working more closely with their land grant educators to develop community based education materials that fit their local needs. The Talapia community project in Livingston is now available to all ag educators through MSU.

Helping community groups leverage funds for sustainable agriculture education projects. Overall $40,000 additional dollars were raised by local community educator teams to carry out their local projects.

Broadening the definition of what constitutes agriculture in Montana, and helping educators and youth understand the role sustainable agriculture plays in their community’s economy.

Using the web to help educators discover the wide array of available materials on sustainability.

A Community Team approach is effective.
Easily the most successful, effective, and well-received project element was the “community team” approach to designing and implementing sustainable agriculture programming for youth. All across the state, teachers, parents, and students welcomed the opportunity to collaborate in designing and working on projects that caught and held student interest.

A systems approach makes sense.
Participants struggled with the term “systems thinking,” but almost instinctively understood the notions of interconnectivity and cause-and-effect. The Leadership Team found systems thinking to be a useful approach to sustainable agriculture. Also, the Educator Teams delighted in exercises that offered opportunities to explore the systems connected to their projects and to examine their projects in new lights.

Educators gained skills and tools for teaching sustainable agriculture.

The project also succeeded in building the capacity of educators to teach sustainable agriculture. This happened most effectively through the professional development workshops and one-to-one mentoring rather than through “discovery,” as the project proposal anticipated. While the students may be eager to try a different way, the educators learned best in structured situations where they were expecting to learn.

Future Recommendations

“We need to take this kind of program to all of Cooperative Extension.” – Mike Cavey, Cooperative Extension 4-H Director, Montana State University.

This is the kind of project that could be replicated successfully with far reaching long-term impacts for sustaianble agriculture and communities.

The findings and lessons presented in the project evaluation report can provide a firm foundation for future progress. There are additional recommendations from the evaluator and from the field that can provide direction and help ensure success and they include:

Disseminate the Leadership Team’s sustainable agriculture curriculum strategically. The Leadership Team can use techniques it applied during the project (such as strategic mapping) to identify key audiences for the curriculum and develop a marketing plan to get it in use.

Promote and continue to add to the learning continuum. Again, identify key audiences and develop a marketing plan to get the continuum in use. Devise a method to solicit and add lesson plans.

Develop a presentation and training model of the project. Being prepared to share what was learned should be part of the dissemination plan for the learnings from this project. Again, identify key audiences and develop an outreach plan.

Cultivate ideas for transitioning engaging both younger children and teens in projects outside required school courses. Explore Gallatin Gateway’s idea of encouraging projects to add a technology component, such as computerized landscape design, satellite imaging, or precision watering.

Include training in project planning and record keeping. Many students and educators requested additional support in these fundamentals.

Change the nomenclature for the local projects. Educator Teams felt their name was inaccurate and misleading. “Community Learning Team” might be a more descriptive term.

Spend more time developing the critical thinking and systems thinking aspects with local projects. Educator Teams believed they could have done a better job of teaching about sustainable agriculture if they had more structured and individualized help to design the critical thinking and systems thinking elements of their projects.

Use more local mentors. Using Leadership Team members as project mentors helped cement the relationship between the two levels of the project but did not always accomplish the level of mentoring needed or desired by the local project. Consider using local mentors (such as local AERO members) in addition to Leadership Team contacts.

Consider adding different kinds of projects that involve more people. For example, invite teachers and/or students to a one-day event, then send them on to share with others and report back what they did; sponsor a Sustainability Camp at Range Days; or collaborate with a service learning program.

The World Wide Web is still a new technology – programs depending on it for information dissemination must plan on providing participants with high levels of technical assistance. This program needs to strengthen Educator Teams’ ability to utilize the Learning Continuum’s Web site.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.