Investigating Rangeland Systems and Practices: Enhancing Sustainable Agriculture Curriculum in South Dakota

Progress report for LNC19-419

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $122,488.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2022
Grant Recipient: South Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Krista Ehlert
South Dakota State University
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Project Information


The protection and preservation of rangelands is integral to key ecosystem services within the North Central Region such as biodiversity, recreation, and food and fiber production. Educating youth through a sustainable agriculture curriculum can serve as the direct link to the future sustainability of rangelands in the Great Plains and South Dakota. This project, entitled “Investigating Rangeland Systems and Practices: Enhancing Sustainable Agriculture Curriculum in South Dakota,” is focused on educating youth in grades 6, 7, and 8 about sustainable agriculture through a lens of rangeland systems and practices. Our overall objectives are to promote sustainable agriculture curriculum through educational events for teachers and 4-H Youth Program Advisors, have educators and youth learn about sustainable agriculture through a rangeland lens, and allow ranchers opportunities to connect and communicate with youth about their challenges, management practices, livelihood, and community impact. To maximize reach, we will conduct statewide workshops for teachers and 4-H Youth Program Advisors, providing these educators with lesson and laboratory/field exercises that align with the Next Generation Science Standards. All lessons and laboratory/field exercises will involve active learning strategies, such as think-pair-shares and small group discussions, as well as experiential and hands-on learning, using case studies developed by ranchers highlighting typical challenges they encounter. Ranchers will be directly involved in this project through the “Adopt-a-Rancher” component, where they will provide vlogs (video blogging) to classrooms and help develop field trips to their ranches. Students and educators will learn about the local, national, and worldwide impacts sustainable agriculture has on people, the economy, and the protection of natural resources. This project will result in increased awareness of sustainable agriculture among youth, including challenges faced, impacts of management strategies, and career opportunities. Ultimately, this project will provide youth and, consequently, their families an objective understanding of what farmers and ranchers are doing, making them informed citizens and cognizant neighbors and future voters.

Project Objectives:

Learning outcomes: 1) teachers and 4-H Youth Program Advisors will learn about sustainable agriculture and how to teach the curriculum, 2) students will learn about sustainable agriculture, 3) students will gain awareness of careers and higher education paths in agricultural fields. Action outcomes: 1) students will share sustainable agriculture information with their families, 2) students will seek careers or higher education paths in agricultural fields, 3) the curriculum will be adopted by states within the North Central Region. Condition outcomes: 1) increased concern for the protection and conservation of natural resources, 2) increased labor force in agricultural fields.


This progress report includes activities to date from November 1, 2019 to December 31, 2021. We have now completed four curricula modules to date, and are on track to finish a final curriculum module prior to summer 2022. Because of personal disruptions in the life of the PI, as well as work disruptions due to COVID in 2020 (the very first full year of this project), we have adjusted our approach and expectations for this project - teachers continue to seem at max capacity, and are reluctant to take on new curriculum modules. We tried hosting a curriculum workshop in summer 2021, but got significant pushback from 4-H Youth Program Advisors that the scheduled date (8/19/2021) interfered with county fairs - thus, we postponed that workshop. We held a separate workshop on 10/27/2021 for 4-H Youth Program Advisors and secured 19 participants.


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Involves research:
Participation Summary


Educational approach:

Our overall objectives are to promote sustainable agriculture curriculum through educational events for teachers and 4-H Youth Program Advisors, have educators and youth learn about sustainable agriculture through a rangeland lens, and allow ranchers opportunities to connect and communicate with youth about their challenges, management practices, livelihood, and community impact. We will utilize a two-pronged approach to realize our project objectives: 1) Workshops for teachers and 4-H Youth Program Advisors and 2) “Adopt-a-Rancher.” Experiential and hands-on learning are at the core of this project and will directly expose students to the economic, environmental, and social aspects of sustainable agriculture systems and practices.

Statewide workshops will be held for science and ag teachers and 4-H Youth Program Advisors (YPAs). We will provide two workshops per year in South Dakota during Year 1 and Year 2 of this three-year project, one “West River” and one “East River,” in order to reach a wide audience. Capacity will be limited to 20 teachers per workshop, for a total of 40 each year. We are keeping capacity lower so that we can provide quality instruction to the educators and provide them the opportunity to engage with the material and participate in hands-on activities. Teachers will leave the workshops with modular lesson plans and laboratory/field exercises, as well as any materials needed to complete each activity. Lesson plans and laboratory/field exercises will provide a summary of the activity and learning outcomes, and alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards and South Dakota Standards of Learning. Further information such as appropriate classroom assessment techniques (CATs) and references will be outlined for each lesson. Teachers will be offered continuing education units (CEUs) for workshop attendance and a substitute teacher stipend if workshops occur during the school year. Both teachers and 4-H YPAs will receive a travel stipend to offset the cost of mileage and lodging.

“Adopt-a-Rancher” will be the innovative, hands-on learning that compliments the lesson and laboratory exercises that teachers implement in their classrooms. Specifically, ranchers will describe challenges they face, which serves as problem-based learning that is incorporated into lessons. Rancher-developed video blogs (“vlogs”) will serve to amplify a rancher’s viewpoint, thought processes, and daily decisions, as well as the seasonal foresight and adaptability needed to achieve sustainable and regenerative ranching practices. Vlogs will “attach a face” to a person (i.e. a rancher) perhaps previously unknown to students and their families. Finally, field trips to ranches will expose students to practical skills such as plant identification and rangeland health assessment, as well as provide the opportunity to interact directly with someone who is invested in the future of sustainable agriculture. We will have six participating ranchers in this project (3 ranchers Year 1, 3 ranchers Year 2) with ranch field trips occurring in Year 1 and Year 2 of the project, after the curriculum has been developed and teacher workshops have commenced. Each ranch will conduct two field trips per year – one in fall and one in spring, for one class/school. Because we did not want to overburden participating producers, we have limited how many field trips this project will directly support. Consequently, priority for field trips will be given to 1) urban schools that are at a greater risk for losing agricultural literacy and 2) tribal schools that are at a greater risk of students not experiencing innovative and engaging curriculum.

Ranchers and a cooperating middle school teacher will be directly involved in the development, review, and execution of the curriculum modules. We will work with ranchers in three ways: 1) assess challenges ranchers face and determine how to present them to students via problem-based learning, 2) provide digital support for ranchers to produce vlogs for classroom use, and 3) develop field trips that focus on practical skills and case studies focused on each ranch. Having ranchers involved in the development of problem-based learning serves to present real, factual problems to students and acknowledges that each ranch is unique in its limitations and resources. Moreover, vlogs serve as a “day in the life” for students to see and hear what a rancher does and allows students to be exposed to different ways of knowing, ultimately challenging their way of thinking and demonstrating multi-faceted problem solving. Vlogs will jump start conversations between teachers and their students, among students, and questions asked by students will be communicated to the ranchers to answer in future vlogs. Lastly, ranchers will help plan ranch field trips, which exemplifies the human component of sustainable agriculture and the impact it has on families and communities. Our participating middle school science teacher, Jessica Wheeler, is going to serve as a checkpoint to ensure that the curriculum modules we develop are grade appropriate, and that there is clear connection to the Next Generation Science Standards.

Several curriculum modules will be developed and delivered to teachers and 4-H Youth Program Advisors through workshops. We will develop five core curriculum modules: Module 1: Overview of Rangelands, Module 2: Rangeland Plants, Module 3: Rangeland Animals, Module 4: Soil Health, and Module 5: Change and Threats. To illustrate how one of our curriculum modules connects to specific Next Generation Science Standards we will focus on an example of Module 2: Rangeland Plants. Students will first learn how to differentiate between types of plants such as grasses, forbs, and shrubs. This aligns with MS-LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes and challenges students to think about how plants reproduce, what impact environmental conditions have on growth, and the effects that characteristics such as flower color can have on pollinator attraction and therefore reproduction (Performance Standards MS-LS1-4 and MS-LS1-5). Further, there will be a focus on grasses so that students learn about different photosynthetic pathways and the cycling of matter and energy flow into and out of organisms (Performance Standards MS-LS1-6).

Hands-on experiential learning will be woven throughout all curriculum modules. In Module 2: Rangelands Plants, students will be able to see and touch different types of plants, which allows them to feel textures such as the waxy cuticle on a forb leaf, the veins of a grass leaf, or a woody stem. Not only does this get students up and out of their seats and interacting with the material and each other, but it also mimics a real-world scenario that scientists and ranchers utilize every day when discussing and identifying plants. A photo contest is another aspect of Module 2, where students will be asked to bring in photos of grasses, forbs, and shrubs and correctly identify them and present to their classmates what characteristics led them to that conclusion. This will foster critical thinking and provide students an opportunity for public speaking. During field trips to local ranches, students will perform a “graze like a cow” exercise, which could also be replicated off-ranch in school yards. In this hands-on exercise, students are given scissors and are tasked with “grazing like a cow” for a specified amount of time in two different areas – one area has already been grazed (or mowed) and one area is untouched. This interactive and unique exercise provides students with an insight into the value of properly managed rangelands, the strategy ranchers use when deciding where to put their cattle, and the daily forage needs of cattle. Once students return to the classroom, they will be able to reference and reflect on what they saw on the ranch and in the vlogs.

All of the components of our curriculum modules translate well to Bloom’s taxonomy, which is a framework for categorizing educational goals, and is familiar to teachers and 4-H YPAs. As first steps, students will remember and understand the basics of sustainable agriculture. For example, in Module 2 they first learn about different types of plants in the classroom. Next, students begin applying their knowledge when they have the photo contest. Knowledge application continues during field trips, which is when students are likely to analyze and evaluate what they are learning. Students might ask questions like what types of grasses are best for cows? Why are there different types of cows in different parts of the country? Finally, students will reach the peak of Bloom’s taxonomy when they formulate their opinions on sustainable agriculture based on the objective information provided in the curriculum modules. They will start to investigate components of agriculture they want to learn more about, such as the coexistence of wildlife and cattle on rangelands, or the impact of native grasslands on pollinator populations.

Our curriculum modules will be made widely available to educators and in Year 3 we will host a “Reflection Roundtable” for all participating educators and ranchers to come together, socialize, reflect and evaluate, and provide suggestions for improvement. This will enforce connections that educators and ranchers developed through vlogs and ranch field trips, foster networking among educators, and provide an opportunity for working groups to develop to help this project continue to be successful beyond the life of the grant. Educators who use our curriculum modules will be asked for feedback (see Evaluation section) on areas that need improvement, ideas for future curriculum modules, and any concepts that students had difficulty with. In addition, within our curriculum modules we will provide suggestions for adoption in other states. For example, Ohio has a stronger dairy industry than ranching. We strongly believe it is important for students in other states to learn about the variety of agricultural industries within the United States; an educator in Ohio could supplement Module 2: Rangeland Plants with a discussion of which grasses are most appropriate for hay to feed to dairy cows, while still teaching different photosynthetic pathways and the cycling of matter and energy flow.

Project Activities

Module 1 - Overview of Rangelands
Module 2 - Rangeland Plants
Module 3 - Rangeland Animals
Module 4 - Soil
Pilot Meetings - Mobridge
Mobridge Pilot - In person classroom assistance
Mobridge pilot - Fall field day

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers participated
21 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

-Curricula, Fact Sheets, or Educational Tools:

  1. Ehlert K, J Bachler and C Wood. 2020. Module 1: Overview of Rangelands.
  2. Ehlert K, J Bachler, and C Wood. 2020. Module 2: Rangeland Plants.
  3. Ehlert K, J Bachler, and C Wood. 2021. Module 3: Rangeland Animals.
  4. Ehlert K, J Bachler, and C Wood. 2021. Module 4: Soil.

-Conference presentation:

  1. Ehlert K and C Wood. 2021. Investigating Rangeland Systems and Practices: Enhancing Sustainable Agriculture Curriculum in South Dakota. Society for Range Management 2021 Annual Meeting (virtual). SRM 2021 Poster.
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.