Educating and Training Future Farmers, Researchers and Extension Personnel in Sustainable Agriculture

2010 Annual Report for LS10-228

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $245,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Rosalie Koenig
University of Florida

Educating and Training Future Farmers, Researchers and Extension Personnel in Sustainable Agriculture


Educating and Training Future Farmers, Researchers and
Extension Personnel in Sustainable Agriculture

Year 1 Activities

Inventory of Teaching Farms

We created an inventory of sustainable agriculture teaching programs utilizing a teaching farm. We used existing lists of programs with a teaching farm that both public (USDA) and private organizations have created. We expanded our search to include any web-based information that we could find about these programs, and specifically about the teaching farms associated with the programs, and to find any programs that were not included in the original lists obtained. This inventory provided us with a complete population, as far as we are able to determine, of teaching programs in sustainable agriculture using a teaching farm. We used this inventory as the basis for acquiring syllabi to ascertain how the farms are incorporated into course curricula.

Assessment of Areas of Interest to Undergraduate Students

An undergraduate honors student, Stephanie Hall, developed an instrument that we will use to identify topical areas of interest to undergraduate students in courses that focus on sustainable agriculture. The following provides a brief discussion of the steps that Ms. Hall completed, abstracted from her honor’s thesis.

“Designing a valid and reliable survey instrument involves many steps and can take a great deal of time. However, it is important to take the time to develop a quality survey so that the results are reliable and valid. The first step in creating a survey is to come up with a specific idea about what new information is needed and why (Salant & Dillman, 1994)… It is also important to determine which survey method works best for the purpose of the study and how the sample will be selected (Salant & Dillman, 1994). For this study the sample was selected from University of Florida students (the accessible population) and was further narrowed by selecting students from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in courses related to agriculture…

“Writing good questions that will provide accurate information is one of the most difficult steps in the process. The instrument developer must determine what kind of information needs to be gathered, what the appropriate question structure is, and how to reduce the wording problems of the instrument (Salant & Dillman, 1994). A key principle of instrumentation is that every respondent must understand the question or item in the same way. Otherwise, the individual who responds may not be providing the information needed by the researcher. Attention to wording is therefore critical. In the development of this instrument, potential problems with understanding were reduced through multiple revisions and a pre-test of the statements’ clarity.

“Finally, it is important to pre-test an instrument for its reliability and validity so that revisions can be made before the final version is distributed (Salant & Dillman, 1994). This survey was pretested on 59 undergraduate students and statistical tests were used to analyze the results and determine the items that would be kept in the final version of the survey. After completing these steps the final instrument was a self-completion questionnaire with a scalar response. The instrument was reviewed by Dr. Koenig and Dr. Swisher to make sure that the information provided would meet their needs.

“The survey was designed to measure undergraduate students’ interest in certain topics related to agriculture. However, examinations of survey data often show that responses to similar questions do not always correspond well with each other (Wikman, 2006). To help alleviate this problem, the survey was designed using the technique of scaling. Multiple subtopics were created within each topic and multiple items were created within each subtopic. For example, one of the topics was water and within water there were three subtopics, quantity, quality, and cycling. The final draft of the survey instrument had three items within the subtopic of quantity: water requirements for crops, designing an irrigation system, and differences among irrigation systems. Therefore, instead of having only one question to test people’s interest in each topic and subtopic there were numerous questions that could be statistically analyzed to look for patterns in how people ranked the items within each topic and subtopic.

“Questionnaires are beneficial because they are generally quick to complete and easy to analyze. However, the validity of the instrument depends on the researchers and respondents interpreting the wording of statements in a similar manner; therefore the refinement and testing of the wording is a key part of survey development (Rattray & Jones, 2007). Even every day words can have ambiguous meanings and therefore be interpreted differently by different respondents. It is important to pre-test surveys so that these language problems can be minimized (Wikman, 2006).

“The fourth draft of the survey was when the wording of the items on the survey instrument was tested for its clarity. For each question two items were created that were meant to convey the same information but were phrased differently so that it could be determined which, if any, of the phrasings were clear to undergraduate students. Five undergraduate students were asked to read each of the items and rank them on a scale of one to four, with one meaning not at all clear and four meaning completely clear. Students with majors that were not related to agriculture were chosen for this part in order to eliminate items that contained agricultural jargon. Having items with specific jargon is a common problem for questionnaires and could result in the respondent not understanding the question (Salant & Dillman, 1994). If two or more students ranked an item as a one or two the item was either reworded or eliminated if there was a duplicate item that was worded differently and scored better. If there were duplicate items and neither one had at least two students score it as a two or lower, then the item that received more threes than fours was eliminated. If two duplicate items both received fours from all the students then one of them was eliminated at the discretion of the researcher, since both items were equally clear to the undergraduate students asked.

“The validity was further tested along with the reliability by pre-testing Survey Instrument 6 on two upper division undergraduate courses in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Forage Science and Range Management and Agricultural and Natural Resource Law. These courses were chosen because they were related to agriculture and so there was an increased probability that the students in the courses would be interested in the subject of agriculture. All of the 59 instruments that were collected were usable. Reliability is “’the extent to which [measurements] are repeatable and that any random influence which tends to make measurements different from occasion to occasion is a source of measurement error’” (Cortina, 1993, p.1). A common method to test the reliability of a survey instrument, and the method that was utilized for the purposes of this study, is using the coefficient alpha, also known as Cronbach’s alpha. Cronbach’s alpha takes into account the variance attributable to subjects and also the variance attributable to the interactions between subjects and items (Cortina, 1993). Validity is when “scores (including the results of qualitative classification) meaningfully capture the ideas contained in the corresponding concept” (Adcock & Collier, 2001, p.3). A survey has high validity if the variables measure what they are supposed to measure. The validity of this survey was measured by calculating the item total correlation scores. These scores are calculated by comparing each item to every other item in a certain group, in this case the various topics and subtopics of the survey. A high item total correlation score signifies that a group had high validity and that respondents view the items within the group as related to each other and the items are therefore measuring the correct variable.

“The development of the survey instrument to determine students’ interest in agricultural topics related to sustainable agriculture followed systematic, stepwise progression to generate a list of items that reflected learning outcomes representing different cognitive levels (Bloom, 1956). The list of items represented areas of knowledge and skills that were associated with the interdisciplinary nature of sustainable agriculture. The definition of sustainable agriculture covers a vast array of subject areas including environmental quality, efficient use of resources, economic viability of farm operations, and the quality of life of farmers and society as a whole (Gold, 1999). There were seven modifications of the survey instrument. The purpose of each modification was to refine the instrument and increase its validity and reliability.”

Evaluation of Experiential Learning in Course Syllabi

A graduate student in Agricultural Education and Communication, Melissa Mzaurkewicz, completed her M.S. thesis in collaboration with our project. Melissa’s area of expertise is the use of experiential learning in agricultural science teaching. She contacted all of the teaching farms in the inventory. She made direct contact with one or more individuals responsible for the farm where possible, although some farms from the lists or web sites did not provide an individual contact. Melissa gathered 132 syllabi for review. She developed a scale to evaluate the degree to which the courses using the farm incorporated the principles of experiential learning, with special emphasis on learning experiences that used the teaching farm as a resource. Her assessment also included the degree to which the syllabi have clearly defined learning objectives and the cognitive level (using Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy) indicated in those objectives. Each syllabus was given a cumulative score. Found concluded that overall scores were low, reflecting relatively little incorporation of specific objectives, cognitive levels, and activities based on the learning cycle. All of these components are critical in a holistic approach to experiential learning, although ensuring complete passage through the learning cycle lies at the heart of experiential learning. Therefore, she specifically examined the syllabi to assess the degree to which each of the four components of the learning cycle were represented in the course activities, paying special attention to the on-farm activities.

Typology of Uses of Teaching Farms in Sustainable Agriculture Courses and Curricula

We are aware that course syllabi are often very incomplete descriptions of an instructor’s intent or of what actually occurs in the classroom. We therefore selected a maximum variation sample of 20 faculty members whose syllabi had been studied as potential participants in a personal interview. These included the faculty members with the lowest and highest scoring syllabi. Not all could be contacted and some refused interviews. In this case, we substituted the next lowest or highest individual on the list.

We developed a semi-structured interview instrument to explore the degree to which faculty teaching sustainable agriculture incorporate experiential learning theory and objective-based learning in their teaching programs. A copy of the interview schedule is attached to t his report. The interview probed the following topics:

1. How the instructor uses the teaching farm in his/her course;
2. How the instructor uses the farm to meet course goals and objectives;
3. How the instructor incorporates experiential learning in his/her use of the teaching farm;
4. How the instructor crafts his/her use of the teaching farming to accommodate different learning styles;
5. How the instructor uses the farm to reach higher cognitive levels; and
6. The barriers the instructor encounters in using the teaching farm.

Twenty faculty members from 15 institutions located around the country participated in the interviews, which were of approximately 45 minutes duration and conducted by telephone. The topics covered in the interview were provided to the participant weveral days prior to the interview. We made an audio tape of each interview and the interviewer took extensive notes during the interview. After completing each interview, the interviewer created a summary of the key points that the participant made during the interview. We provided the summary to the participant and s/he made any corrections or additions to improve the quality of the information that we captured.

We used thematic analysis to analyze the information from the interviews. This involved three steps. First, a team of three researchers reviewed each topical area covered in the interview and wrote down the key ideas that emerged under each topic. For example, one idea that emerged under the topic use of experiential learning on the farm was that instructors use the farms to allow students to apply concepts covered in the classroom portion of a course. After reviewing approximately half of the interviews in depth, the team would then review the remaining interviews to see if any new or different themes emerged. The final product of this step of thematic analysis was to create a primary level or tier of themes that represented the common concepts or ideas that emerged as a response to the specific questions asked in the interview.

The topics covered in this interview are related and overlapping. One reason for using the semi-structured interview is that it allows the participant to tell his or her story – to provide information about a general topic or set of topics in a way that “makes sense” to him or her. While the interviewer has a rather specific set of topics in mind, six in our case, these topics are apt to fold together into a larger framework for the participant. Ultimately, the researcher’s task is to capture these larger frameworks.

The second step in thematic analysis therefore involves taking the lowest level themes and regrouping them into larger conceptual frames that accurately reflect how respondents see the topics “fitting together.” The three researchers detected three major emergent thematic frames: student learning outcomes, the role of the teaching farm in overall pedagogy and course organization and structure, and institutional commitment to the farm. All but a few of the lowest level themes identified in step one could be rather easily, in this case, incorporated into one of these higher level themes. For example, one theme that emerged under Topic 1 (use of teaching farm in the course) in the first step of analysis was that instructors use the teaching farm to “turn abstract ideas and concepts taught into the classroom into real experiences, to get beyond academic understanding.” Under Topic 3 (use of experiential learning), a theme was that instructors use the farm to “actively engage students in the learning experience, to get them involved in learning.” Although these themes emerged under different topical areas in the interviews, both relate to a broader conceptual framework of the role of the teaching farm in overall pedagogy and course organization and structure. These three emergent themes became the conceptual framework for developing a typology of the role of teaching farms in sustainable agriculture education.

A typology is a classification of some phenomenon into categories. The categories are defined by key characteristics. The periodic table of the elements and the Linnean system of classification are examples. Among social phenomena, families provide an example of a typology. We can classify families into several types. In the U.S., the nuclear family is the most common and in fact legally recognized family type. Other family types include the polygamous family, which consists in its “ideal” form as one male head of household, numerous adult females, and the children of all women. Not common in the U.S., this type is very common in many parts of the world. Another type is the extended family, once much more prevalent in the U.S. than it is today. The “ideal type” of the extended family consists of three or more generations of individuals related by marriage and birth, sometimes based on female lineage and sometimes on male lineage.

Among social phenomena, the actual cases (like real families) often vary from the “ideal” type. The nuclear family in the U.S. shows this. Conceptually in its “purest” form the nuclear family consists of two adults related by birth or marriage and their offspring – mom, dad, and two children. In reality, we know that actual families differ from this “ideal type.” Some families have one adult head of household. An elderly person (grandma or grandpa) may reside with the family. Today, we hear much about the “failure to launch” of children and we find nuclear families with adult offspring and even adult offspring and their children residing with the family. However, these variations do not mean that the nuclear family as a “type” does not exist.

We used the three overarching themes that emerged in the second step of analysis as the classification criteria for the typology of “roles of teaching farms in teaching about sustainable agriculture.” Four distinct types emerged. Note that our typology is not a typology of farms, but rather of the roles of these farms in the teaching program or curriculum. It is a typology of how faculty members use the farms, not a typology of the farms themselves. This was critical for us because we are developing educational materials that faculty members can use to enhance the role of experiential learning on teaching farms. Therefore, our materials must be appropriate for these faculty members, based on how they use the teaching farm available to them in their courses or curricula. Any given set of materials cannot accommodate all types of uses of teaching farms.

We therefore had to decide which type would be the most likely to need, want and use our materials. The team met in Atlanta, GA in June, 2011. We decided that we will develop our materials for use by faculty members who use the teaching farm in an exploration role. We do believe that the materials will also serve some faculty members who use the farm in an enhancement role, especially those who use the farm specifically to extend the learning experience both in terms of the learning cycle and in terms of cognitive goals. We also think that there may be some utility for those who use the farm in a competency role. However, the “model” in our minds as we develop our materials is the exploration role. This will inform our materials in several ways. For example, faculty who use the farm in the exploration role focus on student learning outcomes like “being able to develop innovative solutions to production problems.” This desired outcome requires learning materials that reach the cognitive levels of analysis, evaluation and synthesis. We provide a brief description of each of the four types in the typology below.

Enhancement Role

In this role, the teaching farm provides complimentary activities to a primarily classroom-based course. Faculty members typically want to reach application level types of learning objectives, but the role adapts well to a wide range of learning outcomes. Examples of specific learning outcomes include introduce students to agriculture, give them an appreciation of what is involved in farming, or allow students to apply a concept or idea learned in the classroom. Activities emphasize building on or extending the concepts and ideas from the classroom. Examples are demonstrations, short projects or tasks, and observations. Activities can typically be completed in a short time frame, many in a single class period. They are discrete, rather than extended projects. The time spent on the farm is largely limited to class time and instructors may describe the use of the farm as “farm visits.” Assessment techniques are not elaborate and may be based primarily or even exclusively on compliance with required activities. Teachers often see the role of the farm as a way to more fully engage students in the course: get them outside, get rid of distractions, eliminate texting and other activities that often occur in the classroom. The teaching farm is also used to “equalize” students, to allow “non-academics” or “students with learning disabilities” to succeed. Levels of institutional and faculty support are not critical for this role because the faculty make use of what facilities are available opportunistically. They rely on what is available or make do. Accessibility can be a major constraint for this role since time on the farm is typically during the school day. Moving the farm off-campus seriously limits its utility in this role. Many faculty members say their course would be different without the teaching farm, but they do not use the farm as the core of the learning experience. Achieving course objectives does not depend on the farm.

Competency Role

The teaching farm in the competency role serves fundamentally as a replica of an operating farm. Learning outcomes focus on technical competencies needed for employment in production agriculture. Instructors use the teaching farm as a critical component in the curriculum, often requiring lengthy and intensive effort on the part of students. Full two-semester course sequences, requirements for students to complete activities and projects on their own time, and designation of the course(s) as the students’ capstone experience are common. The emphasis on the application cognitive level is highly pronounced. Instructors typically stress “hands on experience,” learning about all aspects of farming, and giving students a chance to apply what they learn about in the classroom. Instructors also stress professional skills like communication, responsibility, and time management as desired course outcomes. Class projects that incorporate farm, crop, or business plans may be part of the course, and a wide variety of farming practices are incorporated, in some cases involving livestock and crop production systems. While group projects are the norm, faculty members stress that every member of the group must become competent in each skill or competency. Group venues for activities are a common way of teaching professional responsibilities and roles. Analytic abilities are a secondary emphasis, with a strong focus on identifying problems and the potential solutions to them. A typical example would be that a group of students must diagnose a problem, find information about how to solve the problem, and then decide which of several potential solutions they would apply. Instructors often emphasize keeping a journal of observations and presentations as components of the learning activities. Assessment also stresses the “practical” or “applied” emphasis in this role. For example, some instructors use peer evaluation by group members and evaluation by faculty and non-faculty members of group projects in addition to the traditional individual instructor evaluation of student performance, stressing assessment to determine how “realistic” or “practical” the plans are. Faculty and institutional commitment is critical for the competency role. To function as “replicas” of operating farms, the teaching farm needs to reflect the kinds of enterprises, equipment, and conditions that students can expect to encounter after graduation. Marketing components like an on-campus CSA or farmers’ market, for example, may be important for students to learn about marketing. The need for fiscal, human and physical infrastructure is high and one problem for these farms is the high cost/student for the educational experience.

Exploration Role

In this role, the teaching farm is a critical component in allowing students to explore complex concepts dealing with the social, economic and environmental aspects of agriculture. Desired student learning outcomes focus on higher cognitive skills like analysis, evaluation and, in some cases, creating. Faculty members want students to be able to identify problems and pose potential solutions for them, as in the case of the competency role, but the importance of discovery learning is much greater. Faculty will stress the importance of learning from the consequences of decisions or learning from mistakes, often encouraging students to test alternative solutions and evaluate the outcomes from each. Assessment also tends to be comprehensive. Peer, group, and self evaluation are commonly important components of assessment. Assessment also often involves reaction papers in which students use what they learn on the farm to reflect upon and discuss complex topics or issues. Group activities are the core of the learning experience on the farm, but unlike the teaching farm, group projects tend to be developed and planned by the students, not by the instructor. Group projects often include an experimental or inquiry component and the end product includes reflection upon the learning experience. Learning about group processes is itself a learning objective in many cases, going beyond shared responsibility to goals that deal with management of the group or team experience. Students will typically organize their own projects, including the non-class time that they must spend to complete the activities. Activities are often designed to integrate what students learn in the classroom, including concepts, processes and skills. Farms used in this role are much more apt to explore the social components of agriculture. Service learning experiences are not uncommon as components in the learning experience. Faculty members frequently mention using all of the students’ senses (auditory, kinesthetic, visual) in the learning activities. Overall, the objective is to provide an intellectually stimulating learning experience in which the student gains mastery of both skills and competencies and higher level critical thinking skills. Faculty and institutional support for these farms are critical because the cost/student for the learning experience is high. In addition, outside support may also be critical because student projects may involve service learning components. The need to involve faculty members from multiple disciplines and to have the facilities that will provide for the flexible kinds of projects and activities needed to achieve course goals drive costs.

Foundation Role

In the foundation role, the teaching farm serves as the organizing or focal point for a holistic educational approach that focuses on giving the student a foundation for his/her life career and personal development. The role of the farm is not particularly to teach students “about agriculture or farming,” or “how to run a farm.” Rather, the farm becomes the instructor’s venue for personal and professional development for students. The learning outcomes deal as much with the student’s ability to make life and career choices and develop his/her intellectual abilities as to learn specific techniques or skills. The activities are varied, but tend to focus on learning experiences that will encourage students to explore a wide array of ideas and concepts and how s/he can apply those in his/her own life. Group activities are common, as in several other types, but the outcomes in the foundation role include students bonding with their peers, developing a sense of their own life goals, and exploring how to use what they learn to address larger social concerns. Faculty members use the learning farm to break down barriers, between themselves and their students and between students. Projects are common, but students have the freedom to explore a very broad array of issues and topics in the projects and assessment focuses strongly on what the individual gains from the process, both in terms of knowledge and experience. Reflection papers, group discussions, and peer reflection are strong components in assessment. The faculty member serves as a guide and mentor in the learning process. Faculty and institutional support are important, but not critical for this role. Facilities are not as critical as time with the student and the students’ ability to interact with each other, with faculty members, and with individuals and organizations outside the university.


Pablo Morales-Pagan
Associate Professor
University of Puerto Rico
PO Box 9000
Mayaguez, PR 00681
Office Phone: 7874145429
Marilyn Swisher
Associate Professor
Family Youth and Community Sciences
Gainesville, FL 32611
Office Phone: 3522733538
T. Grady Roberts
Associate Professor
Agriculture Education and Comunication
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611
Office Phone: 3522732568
Geoff Zehnder
Clemson University
Department of Entomology
B28 Long Hall
Clemson, SC 29634
Office Phone: 8646566644
Michelle Schroeder-Moreno
Assistant Professor
NC State University
2406 Williams Hall
Raleigh, NC 27695
Office Phone: 9195130085