Teaching Tomorrow's Leaders in Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for LNC04-241

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $57,969.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Robert De Haan
Dordt College
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Project Information


Sixty undergraduate students, thirteen graduate students, and eleven high school agriculture teachers from the Upper Midwest participated in the Agroecosystems Analysis field course during the summers of 2005-2008. Participants completed pre-course readings, learned from 8 innovative farmers by visiting their farms, and worked in teams to analyze these farms. Undergraduate and graduate students presented their analyses orally to the class, and also produced a final written report. High school teachers developed course modules in sustainable agriculture and agroecosystems analysis to use in their classroom settings. They presented these modules to the class, and submitted written summaries to the instructors.


Contemporary agriculture is at a crossroads with opposing agents of change vying for influence in determining the future course of agricultural development within the U.S. At the present time much of agriculture is rapidly converting to an industrial model to the detriment of many of the longstanding agrarian values that have existed in this nation. However, alternative agricultural models also exist and offer promising approaches for farmers who seek to live fulfilling, profitable lives without embracing the industrial model. This project (and the Agroecosystems Analysis course around which it is formed) is dedicated to the premise that the advantages of farms that follow alternative approaches towards agricultural sustainability are readily evident, especially so if they can be experienced first-hand.

There is a need to educate students and teachers about economically and environmentally sound alternatives that can and should be implemented on family farms in the North Central region. We believe that this project will help us pursue a path that can lead to a deeper understanding of the concept of sustainability, especially as it is applied to agroecosystems of the region. These changes will help lead to improved profitability and sustainability of farming operations and greater citizen support for alternatives to the industrial model of agriculture.

Many people can identify key teachers who had extraordinary influences on their professional and personal formation as people. Such teachers are often ones who were encountered at the junior or senior high school levels, when students can be particularly open to the formation of life ideals and goals. Although some attention has been given to bringing concepts of sustainability and agroecology to bear within colleges and universities (Francis et al., 2003), relatively little effort has been made to date to assure that these also become a part of secondary curricula and instruction within the U.S. We maintain that helping secondary teachers understand concepts of sustainability, as well as implement experiential learning and problem-based learning pedagogical approaches that lead to transformational learning are essential to influencing tomorrow’s leaders and food system participants. This is also important for the broader education of citizens as well who must support public discourse that foster commitments to sustainable practices in agriculture and otherwise. Providing 21 secondary teachers with the opportunity to experience first hand the active, experiential pedagogies upon which the Agroecosystems Analysis course is founded should provide a substantial impetus for changes in high school curricula and course content within the region. For university students involved in the course, their development of a deeper understanding of agroecosystem functions and the implementation of sustainable practices should lead to agricultural professionals and practitioners who can help sustain the future and enhance the natural resource foundation upon which agriculture depends. For students who do not become agricultural professionals, such understanding should lead to a more informed and active citizenry in the region, particularly in the area of sustainable agriculture.

This project is founded upon the assumption that transformational learning is essential if agriculture, and our culture in general, are to move towards sustainability. This transformational learning will not happen through the conventional, passive, second-hand educational approaches that predominate within secondary (and higher education) systems of the region. Transformational learning shapes people—they are fundamentally different afterwards in ways that both they and others can recognize (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999). It presumes that students, and teachers also, need to encounter “disorienting dilemmas” (i.e. profound events or life experiences) that cause them to acquire new perspectives and skills needed to make meaning of and resolve those dilemmas. Transformational learners are often engaged in significant self-examination and critical assessment of assumptions. This assessment often leads them to new levels of understanding. A transformational learner is usually eager to seek options that lead to constructive action to alleviate the dilemma and to move towards a better situation. Our experience with field-based, experiential, farmer-centered approaches to learning indicates that our students do all of these. (Wiedenhoeft et al., 2003)

Literature Review

Sustainable agricultural practices and systems will only become accepted and implemented in the North Central Region if the next generation of farmers and agricultural leaders are convinced that this represents a viable future for economically and environmentally sound farming. It is essential that we design and introduce sustainable agriculture into the curriculum of high schools, community and four-year colleges, and universities in the region. To date most SARE funded projects have focused on education for farmers. This project concentrates on experiential learning and agroecosystem analysis for college and university students and high school teachers. A second component is working with high school teachers to help them incorporate the concepts of sustainable agriculture and agroecology into curricula at the high school level.

Experiential learning has been the foundation for indigenous education for millennia. People learned by doing, worked as apprentices or alongside their parents or elders in the village, and put this experience into practice. Socrates in the fifth century BC guided his students in the discovery process and search for truth, and his student Plato recorded these ideas and expanded on the quest for order and justice. Aristotle was a student of Plato, and he argued that form and matter were inseparable and experience was central to learning. Through the church and the renaissance emerged the concept of sermons, lectures and universities, and our educational systems today still labor within the paradigm of authority figures and one-way communication. John Dewey (1938) was an early proponent of experience as fundamental to the learning process, and his friend Eduard Lindeman (1961) built on this theory. He argued that to be most effective, learning should not be constrained by classrooms and formal curricula.

Our goal is to offer alternatives to that dominant paradigm. We know that people accumulate experiences and use them as a foundation upon which to place new knowledge and ideas, consistent with the constructivist description of education (Merriam and Caffarella, 1990). Practical internships, field experiences, and tours are already components of many of our courses, yet we have all been on field trips that turn into lectures by the instructor or the farmer in the setting of the farm. More relevant to our proposal are the capstone and other broad courses that use problem-based learning by groups of students who deal with real-world situations and come up with solutions or alternative scenarios. These learning approaches are used in a wide array of courses in agriculture, including biological engineering (Christy et al., 2000), food science (Murano and Knight, 1999), agroforestry (Roush et al., 1999), agricultural education (Trede and Andreasen, 2000), and natural resources conservation (Arthur and Thompson, 1999).

Experience in the Nordic Region with experiential education has led to the development of a new MSc curriculum in Agroecology. Much of the learning is accomplished in the field, with experiences that complement the prior reading, discussions, and team research on relevant topics (Lieblein et al., 1999). The potential to expand the concept of agroecology to include the entire food system has been described (Francis et al., 2003) and practical applications in Norway have been tested using experiential field courses (Lieblein et al., 2001). We have extrapolated from this learning model to suggest a design for future agricultural universities and colleges that could conduct much of the experiential education off the campus in the rural landscape and communities (Lieblein et al., 2000).

Based on the Nordic experience and active-learning field trips here in the Midwest we have designed a highly-effective summer travel course in a three-state area (Wiedenhoeft et al., 2003). Based on principles of hands-on learning, farmers as instructors, and small group interaction we have squeezed an incredible amount of experience and learning into one week. Students read and summarize articles and book chapters in preparation for an intensive week of farm visits and group work, present their preliminary findings at the end of the week, and complete a group report and individual learner document over the course of another month. From students evaluations we find that this course is one of the best they have taken at the university level, and the reason is the practical orientation and incorporation of farmers as instructors in the course. In this new proposal, we intend to provide the same learning experience for high school agriculture, biology, and environmental science teachers, with the additional goal of helping them develop plans and curricular materials for use with their high school students in succeeding years.


Arthur, M.A., and J.A. Thompson. 1999. Problem-based learning in a natural resources conservation and management curriculum: a capstone course.

Christy, A.D., M. Lima, and A.D. Ward. 2000. Implementing real-world problem solving projects in a team setting. NACTA J. 44(3):72-77.

Dewey, J. 1938. Experiences and education. Collier Books, New York.

Francis, C.A., and H.C. Carter. 2001. Participatory education for sustainable agriculture: everyone a teacher, everyone a learner. J. Sustain. Agric. 18(1):71-83.

Francis, C., G. Lieblein, S. Gliessman, T.A. Breland, N. Creamer, R. Harwood, L. Salomonsson, J. Helenius, D. Rickerl, R. Salvador, M. Wiedenhoeft, S. Simmons, P. Allen, M. Altieri, C. Flora, and R. Poincelot. 2003. Agroecology: the ecology of food systems. J. Sustainable Agric. 22(3):99-119.

Francis, C.A., G. Lieblein, J. Helenius, L. Salomonsson, H. Olsen, and J. Porter. 2001. Challenges in designing ecological agriculture education: A Nordic perspective on change. Amer. J. Altern. Agric. 16(2):89-95.

Lieblein, G., C. Francis, and J. King. 2000. Conceptual framework for structuring future agricultural colleges and universities. J. Agric. Educ. Extension (Wageningen) 6:213-222.

Lieblein, G., C.A. Francis, L. Salomonsson, and N. Sriskandarajah. 1999. Ecological agriculture research: increasing competence through PhD courses. J. Agric. Education and Extension. 6(1):31-46.

Lieblein, G., C. Francis, W. Barth-Eide, H. Torjusen, S. Solberg, L. Salomonsson, V. Lund, G. Ekblad, P. Persson, J. Helenius, M. Loiva, L. Sepannen, H. Kahiluoto, J. Porter, H. Olsen, N. Sriskandarajah, M. Mikk, and C. Flora. 2000. Future education in ecological agriculture and food systems: a student-faculty evaluation and planning process. J. Sustain. Agric. 16(4):49-69.

Merriam, S. B. and R. S. Caffarella. 1999. Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

National Science Education Standards. 1996. National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, National Research Council. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Wiedenhoeft, M., S. Simmons, R. Salvador, G. McAndrews, C. Francis, J. King, and D. Hole. 2003. Agroecosystems analysis from the grass roots: a multidimensional experiential learning course. J. Natural Res. Life Sci. Educ. 32:73-79.

Project Objectives:

Short term:
The immediate outcome from this project will be a core group of approximately twenty-one high school agriculture, biology, and environmental science teachers with an enhanced awareness of sustainable agriculture as practiced by real farmers, and a commitment to pass this understanding on to their students. These teachers will have acquired key references and other educational tools and materials, and will have developed specific strategies for utilizing these within their classes, schools, and school systems. The teachers will also have learned to apply the pedagogical concepts of “experiential learning” and “problem-based learning” as a result of their participation as students in the field-based Agroecosystems Analysis course that serves as the core of this project. Both experiential learning and problem-based learning are highly effective tools for fostering transformational learning, which can lead to substantive positive shifts in participant attitudes and actions. Synergies gained by combining secondary teachers with the university students in this project should create immediate positive benefits for both groups. College and university students participating in the course will develop a better understanding of sustainable agricultural systems and the farmers who operate them and will have developed a framework to use to analyze agroecosystems. They will also be motivated to explore additional sustainable alternatives for Midwestern agriculture.

Intermediate term:
There will be a strong follow-up effect as the participating teachers return to their schools and school systems and interact with peers locally, and in professional associations. We also expect that teachers who have participated in this course will become resource persons for other high school teachers interested in experiential and problem-based learning, and in sustainable agricultural systems. Furthermore, we anticipate a positive response from high school students who are given the opportunity to use experiential learning approaches to investigate food production systems. We expect the students to foster their own impetus for change within their schools and school systems. Finally, we expect that the college and university students who participate in the Agroecosystems Analysis course will become committed to the development of sustainable food production systems and rural communities. As these students move into their own professional contexts and adult lives, they will likely serve as important advocates and agents for change in their roles as citizens, parents, and community members.

Long term:
We envision a day when concepts and considerations of sustainability, including sustainable agriculture and agroecology, will become central to the secondary curricula and learning experience within both rural and urban communities in the North Central region! This will only happen as teachers and citizens grasp the reality that sustainable agriculture is not just an agricultural concern. The synergistic relationships formed among the secondary teachers, university students and faculty involved with this project can form an important nucleus of citizens and professionals who will work towards this goal. With time, we envision the development of a functional regional network of agricultural professionals and citizens equipped to improve the economic, environmental, and social health of the family farm sector in the North Central Region.

Target population:
A group of approximately 21 secondary teachers and 45 college and university students represent the population to be directly impacted by this project. The teachers will be from both rural and urban school districts and will be selected for participation, in part, based on their capacity to provide leadership and curricular and pedagogical innovation within their school districts. They will represent agricultural (e.g. vocational agriculture) and non-agricultural (e.g. environmental science and biology) disciplines and interests. Similarly, the university students who participate in the Agroecosystems Analysis course will come from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds including biological/physical sciences, social sciences and the humanities. Based on our prior experiences with the Agroecosystems Analysis course (Wiedenhoeft et al., 2003), it is expected that many of the university students will have direct ties to agriculture and agricultural communities but a large number will also come from urban backgrounds. We expect that both the teachers and students will influence a large and even broader array of educators and students when they return to their home institutions and communities following completion of the course and project. We further expect that some of the students and teachers may form relationships that extend beyond the confines of the project. Based on prior experience with experiential learning and problem-based learning, we are confident that both teachers and students will acquire a high level of motivation to gain further understanding and experience in sustainable food systems and agroecology and will continue to apply this to their professional activities and lives as active citizens.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Charles Francis
  • Steve Simmons
  • Mary Wiedenhoeft


Materials and methods:

The centerpiece of this proposal is an intensive summer immersion course in sustainable agriculture, following the model established over several years, with SARE support, for an experiential student course in agoecosystems analysis (Wiedenhoeft et al., 2003). This course was designed in part from experiences in the Nordic region with practical on-farm courses (Lieblein et al., 2000a), and provides concepts and components for designing universities and colleges for experiential education (Lieblein et al., 2000b). The summer course will include reading and orientation in sustainable agriculture and agroecology, followed by an intensive week of on-farm visits and farmer interviews reinforced by small group analysis and evaluation of these farms based on production, economic, environmental, and social criteria. Participating high school agriculture, biology, and environmental science teachers will meet with SARE course faculty to develop plans for high school courses and curricula in sustainable agriculture. The high school teachers that complete this program will provide a foundation for a regional network of educators in sustainable agriculture who can regularly exchange materials and share teaching experiences.

The course is founded upon the concept of community learning. Participants in the course will develop and utilize protocols for analyzing farms and other significant sites that constitute an assemblage of agroecosystems within the tri-state region of southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. The weeklong emersion will be held in early August. On the first day, an intense effort will be made to introduce the participants to the concept of community learning, and to help them become better acquainted with one another. Based on documentation provided by course participants, the organizers of the course will place students in groups of 3 or 4. College students and high school teachers will be placed in separate groups. Our objective is to maximize learning by forming groups with members that have a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Over the next several days, two to three farms will be visited each day. Each farm visit will last approximately three hours. During that time, the farmer and farm family are the instructors, and all others are co-learning participants. Most days will end with a large group discussion of the days stops, lead by one of the student groups.

In reality, the model of the farmer-as-teacher will prevail throughout the entire course. The information provided by the farmers will form the bulk of the subject material for the course. Farm visits will be carefully planned to expose students to articulate farmers managing a wide range of farm operations (dairy, swine, field crops, horticultural crops, integrated crop and livestock, organic, conventional, etc). Methods in the course will emphasize discovery learning, as students decide in groups what questions to ask farmers in the interviews, improve the process through experience, and plan their oral and written presentations. The focus will be on learning, with faculty members taking the role of catalysts, mentors, and co-learning participants in the course. We have observed that students are very impressed when they see faculty taking seriously the role of learner. We will fully orient the high school teacher participants to assume the roles of student listeners and learners as well, since this is part of their own growth experience.

Examples of the types of farms and landscape activities that we have visited in the past, and that we plan to visit in the future, are:
• An organic farm family with a diversified set of enterprises that include grazing livestock, corn/soybean/small grain production.
• A conventional family farm with an emphasis on corn/soybean and swine production.
• A farm family with a 100-head Jersey dairy cow operation that is entirely grass- based with a New Zealand-style outdoor milking barn.

• A farm family with a 3,000 plus cow dairy operation.
• A farm family emphasizing bison production.
• A corporation composed of three farm families with an intensive 300,000 layer poultry facility.
• A ‘wind farm’ and the effort to harvest the wind for energy.
• Steele Prairie – one of the largest original native prairies remaining in this region.
• A state park and Blood Run, both known for their connection to Native American history.
• A farmers market as well as a farm family that produces fruits, vegetables and flowers for farmers markets.

We will choose farms based on diversity in size of operation, potential to provide a cross-section of farms typical to the region, communication skills of the farmer, and goals of the farm families. The farms selected represent differing agroecosystems, landscapes, management philosophies, soil types and topography.

During the first year of the project, we will work with three high school teachers who, in addition to participating as students in the summer course, will work with us to design course activities that meet the needs of high school agricultural science, biological and environmental science teachers. One teacher from each of the three participating states will help to develop activities for field and classroom use that build upon the summer course experience. High school curricula that addresses the impact of agriculture on natural resources, the need for sustainable practices that protect these resources, and the complex relationships between agriculture, natural resources, and societies will be developed for rural as well as urban high school students. These three teachers will then serve as “lead” teachers in the summer course during subsequent years and will also help to recruit teachers from their respective states. The “lead” teacher strategy has been utilized in a two-week summer learning institute on genetics and molecular biology for high school teachers offered through the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota over the past four years and has proven to be highly successful in helping teachers to incorporate content and activities in their classrooms.

At the end of the intensive weeklong course the participants, grouped in teams, will give interactive oral presentations and begin to write component sections of their written team reports. The team report, along with a ‘Learner Document’ in which they are asked to reflect on the learning process will be due one month after the weeklong course.

Sixty undergraduate students, thirteen graduate students, and eleven high school agriculture teachers from the Upper Midwest participated in the Agroecosystems Analysis field course during the summers of 2005-2008. Faculty members and farmer participants worked together to provide a quality educational experience for the students. Graduate and undergraduate students were fully engaged in the course and all of them completed the course requirements. The high school teachers did a very good job of analyzing the farms and then constructing curricular modules to help their own students do the same thing.

Each course participant has:
• Visited eight to ten diverse farms and conducted in depth interviews with the farmers and farm families.
• Defined and described the properties of agroecosystems.
• Experienced an investigative framework for analyzing the origin, impact and sustainability of agricultural practices used on farms within the region.
• Gained experience in defining, assessing and interpreting factors which contribute to greater sustainability of agroecosystems.
• Interacted directly with farmers, faculty, and other students who share expertise and interest in agroecosystems and their sustainabililty.

In addition, the high school teachers (vocational agriculture, biology, or environmental science) who have completed the course have:
• Assembled a mini library of appropriate materials covering alternative, integrated, and environmentally sound local food systems (agroecosystem analysis).
• Developed a course outline and curricula that will be used in their teaching situation.

A video crew accompanied the class to several farms and used the footage to produce a DVD that provides a virtual tour of two dairy farms and two swine farms.

Research results and discussion:

Over the past four years, sixty undergraduate students have become much more aware of sustainable agriculture and of the challenges and opportunities that farmers face. They are now better prepared to make good choices regarding the food system in the U.S., as consumers or as producers. Thirteen graduate student participants are more cognizant of the big picture in Midwestern agriculture, and therefore better able to conduct meaningful agricultural research. Eleven high school agriculture teachers have written modules to use in their classrooms, and are excited about the potential of alternative agricultural systems. Each teacher has also received a copy of the DVD (virtual tour of 4 farms) to use as an educational resource.

Farmer impact has also been very positive. We have visited many of the same farms year after year. The farmers appreciated the visits, have thought more deeply about how their farms operate, and have become more aware of how others view their operations.

Research conclusions:

Over the past four years, sixty undergraduate students have become much more aware of sustainable agriculture and of the challenges and opportunities that farmers face. They are now better prepared to make good choices regarding the food system in the U.S., as consumers or as producers. Thirteen graduate student participants are more cognizant of the big picture in Midwestern agriculture, and therefore better able to conduct meaningful agricultural research. Eleven high school agriculture teachers have written modules to use in their classrooms, and are excited about the potential of alternative agricultural systems. Each teacher has also received a copy of the DVD (virtual tour of 4 farms) to use as an educational resource.

Farmer impact has also been very positive. We have visited many of the same farms year after year. The farmers appreciated the visits, have thought more deeply about how their farms operate, and have become more aware of how others view their operations.

Economic Analysis

Over the past four years approximately 90 people (84 students and 6 faculty members) have become much more knowledgeable about, and supportive of, sustainable agriculture. The impact on students has been substantial in most cases, and life-changing in others. All the participants, and particularly the high school teachers, will impact others for years to come. The cost has been about $500 per participant.

Farmer Adoption

Farmers practicing sustainable agriculture have been encouraged by the course participants who visited their farms, and in many cases have taken steps to increase the sustainability of their operations. Less-sustainable production practices have often been given a second look, and some of them have been changed over the past four years, perhaps due in part to the discussions the farmers had with the class.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Harms, K., King, J., & Francis, C. (Submitted for Publication). Behavioral changes based on a course in agroecology: A mixed methods study. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education. Submitted November 15, 2008.

Harms, Kristyn M. (2008). A mixed methods study of behavioral changes based on a course in agroecology. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Nebraska -Lincoln, United States -- Nebraska. Retrieved February 2, 2009, from Dissertations & Theses @ University of Nebraska - Lincoln database. (Publication No. AAT 3310978).

O'Neill, Jenny and Mary Wiedenhoeft, a student in the Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture, and Associate Professor at Iowa State University, respectively, are in the process of creating case studies based on the Agroecosystems Analysis Course that will be submitted in 2009 to the J of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education.

Peterson, Heidi. 2009. Formative Evaluation for ISU Capstone Experience – A Qualitative Review of Experiential Learning: Agroecosystems Analysis Summer Course. Prepared for Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft, Associate Profesor of Agronomy at Iowa State University in partial fulfillment of Ph.D. program requirements.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Our observations indicate that undergraduate and graduate students in the course often had had few opportunities to interact directly with a wide range of farmers. Their understanding of agriculture as practiced by real farmers was often narrow and/or shallow, and the course allowed them to put their previous education in context, substantially increasing its value. Broad-based support for sustainable agriculture is likely to require similar experience for many more people in our society. Finding the most effective way to offer these experiences will be key to promoting sustainable agriculture.

The high school teachers who participated in the course were very open to learning about agricultural ecology and sustainable agriculture, but entered the course with very little exposure to it. Working to address this reality, and investigating the most effective ways of doing so, will be critical to the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices in the years to come.

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.