Towards a Sustainable Agriculture: An Updated Curriculum for High School Classes

Final Report for LNC03-227

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $83,671.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Douglas Maxwell
University of Wisconsin
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Project Information


A web-based curriculum on sustainable agriculture was developed for use in Iowa and Wisconsin high school agriculture programs.  This curriculum is based in part on Wisconsin’s sustainable agriculture curriculum published in 1991 but also incorporates new material and references other sustainable agriculture resources now available.  The first parts of the curriculum were made available on the web in late spring of 2005.   During 2006 the fourth module addressing sustainable horticulture was added to the site and work was started on a fifth module focusing on organic agriculture. The curriculum website URL is


Elective agriculture classes remain a popular choice in Wisconsin and Iowa high schools.  These classes now attract large numbers of students from non-farm backgrounds, and in rural areas they also include a significant portion of students from farm families.  Although there are quite a few lessons and resources on sustainable agriculture that can be used in teaching (see the on-line listing of Sustainable Agriculture Resources and Programs for K-12 Youth at ), most are aimed at elementary students.  In addition, with the exception of the UC Santa Cruz Agroecology curriculum for post secondary students, the resources are designed to teach single stand-alone lessons and do not provide an overview of  sustainable agriculture concepts.  The only comprehensive sustainable agriculture teaching resource for high school students was a curriculum published in 1991.  The purpose of this project was to develop a web-based sustainable agriculture curriculum that would be easily accessible for high school teachers.  

Project Objectives:
  • High school teachers in Wisconsin and Iowa will become more knowledgeable about sustainable agriculture.

    Teachers in Wisconsin and Iowa who are interested in alternative approaches to agriculture will use the curriculum in their classes.

    High school students in those classes will become aware of principles of sustainable agriculture and of examples in their area.

    High school students in those classes will become aware of their role in the food system.

    Intermediate and long-term

    Some students will become involved in projects related to sustainable agriculture.

    The knowledge and awareness gained through the curriculum may influence the actions of some students as college students, working adults, and consumers.

    20% of high school agriculture teachers in Wisconsin and Iowa will use at least portions of the curriculum in their teaching.

    Teachers will incorporate sustainable agriculture concepts and materials into the rest of their agriculture curriculum.

    Communities where the curriculum is taught will become more accepting of sustainable agriculture practitioners.

    The curriculum will be adapted for use in other states.

    The curriculum will be expanded to include additional modules.


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  • Diane Mayerfeld


Materials and methods:

Based on previous discussions with teachers, we decided to put the entire curriculum on the web. The curriculum was divided into modules, which were intended to match common agriculture classes. An advisory committee of teachers and farmers from Iowa and Wisconsin provided direction on the overall curriculum design. In addition, members of that advisory group, as well as faculty and staff from the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State University, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and the Iowa Department of Education reviewed the content and format of the draft modules.

Research results and discussion:
  • Published four modules on the web: “Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture;” “Corn, Beans, and Burgers: field crops in sustainable agriculture;” “Flesh, Fish, and Fowl: animals in sustainable agriculture;” and “Apples, Beets, and Zinnias: sustainable horticulture". The curriculum website is

    A fifth module, “A Growing Market: Organic Agriculture,” is currently under development.

    Presented workshops on the curriculum at the Wisconsin Association of Agricultural Educators annual conference in June 2006, at the National SARE Conference in August 2006, and at teacher in-service meetings in Wisconsin in October 2004.

    Received curriculum evaluation based on classroom use from six agriculture teachers.

Research conclusions:

We relied on two approaches to assessing impact of the curriculum.

First, in order to gauge overall use of the curriculum, we installed a site visit tracking program on the website in May 2006. Since we installed a web tracker, the site has received between 150 and 200 visitors a month. The number of page views per month ranges from a low of 730 in December 2006 to a little over 1,000 page views in November 2006. About one quarter of the site visitors are returning visitors; the rest appear to be new (although if returning users have removed the cookie from their computers they will be counted as new). The pattern of use is heaviest on weekdays, with very little use on Saturday. Most visitors appear to be located in the Midwest, though there are visitors from all over the US and scattered around the world.

Second, in order to get qualitative feedback, we placed a questionnaire on the website for teachers to provide feedback on the curriculum. This method of seeking feedback was completely unsuccessful. Although the questionnaire has been on the site since spring 2005, we have not received a single completed questionnaire. With the help of Dr. Gary Lake from the Department of Life Sciences Communication, Curriculum and Instruction, we worked with a group of agriculture teachers who were taking a continuing education class in curriculum development in the spring of 2006. As part of their coursework, the teachers agreed to test portions of the Toward a Sustainable Agriculture Curriculum in their classrooms and provide feedback. Two of the teachers provided detailed written comments on the parts of the curriculum they tested; the others provided general comments. All of them agreed the material was useful and challenged their students. All the teachers complained about the difficulty of navigating between parts of the curriculum and problems with printing materials. As a result, we improved the navigation and addressed the printing problem. All the teachers found the case studies useful.

Both the teachers who provided detailed feedback read the background information for the lessons they used in class, and in fact, one created a student hand-out from the background information. However, though they did not explicitly say so, it appeared from their comments that some of the other teachers skipped the background explanation and simply printed out case studies and activities to use in class. This behavior poses something of a challenge for the curriculum design. While it is possible to design free-standing activities, it is difficult to convey broader connections and concepts of sustainability in a stand-alone activity.

Economic Analysis

Because the SARE grant underwrote the major curriculum development costs, the materials are available on the web at no charge to teachers. If their web access is limited, teachers can also order a compact disc of the curriculum for $5.

Farmer Adoption

We do not have accurate figures on teacher adoption. The fifteen teachers from whom we have direct feedback (those who attended the WAAE workshop and those who tested the curriculum material in their classes) all said they intend to use the curriculum again in their classes.
The web tracking program does not identify which viewers are teachers, so those statistics do not provide an accurate count on their own. One indirect indicator of teacher adoption may be the geographic location of viewers, since our teacher outreach has been concentrated in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is consistently the state with the most viewers of the website. Another indicator is those visitors who have used the site numerous times. A total of 1,317 visitors viewed the curriculum website between August 16, 2006 and March 31, 2007. 930 of those people appear to have visited the site only once, while 113 visitors have used the site six or more times. It seems likely that most of those who have visited the site more than five times are educators who are using the materials in their work.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The main publication is the curriculum website, In addition, we have produced two promotional publications: a postcard sized hand-out advertising the curriculum web address and a printed sample lesson handout. If the sample lesson proves popular, we will develop printed versions of selected other lessons from the curriculum.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Projected activities for upcoming year:

Release of the fifth module on the web in June 2007. (“A Growing Trend: Organic Agriculture”)

Workshop at Wisconsin Association of Agricultural Educators annual conference in June 2007.

For the curriculum to remain current, additional funding will be needed to pay for annual updates, as well as continuing promotion. The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems intends to seek funding so it can continue to maintain, develop, and promote the curriculum.

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.