Changing the focus of education from teacher-centric to learning and project-centric is the goal of the five panelists at the first food/ag breakout session entitled “Behind the Plastic: Relearning science, culture of real food.”
The group of educators, who work with students from kindergarten through college, agreed that hands-on-learning is necessary for all learning but particularly for courses on agriculture, food cycles, sciences and nutrition.
“We want [the students] to be farmers. We want them to be scientists. We want them to be business leaders,” said Phil
Conroy, the president of Vermont Technical College. He said in addition to the three different types of farms the college operates the school is piloting a program to focus on the production area of dairy products, as well as exploring a culinary program and waste energy by building two systems – one will feed into the national electric grid system and one that will power greenhouses on the campus.
“Liberal arts colleges abandoned agriculture as a liberal art years ago,” said Sterling College President Will Wootton.
Wootton said despite what his small college is able to do with teaching the importance of approach of questioning and experimentation that most private colleges do not have the staff, the curriculum options and other necessary support to reinstitute the programs. But he added that there is a growing demand for this type of education.
“It’s the students who are going to drive this, if the schools pay attention,” Wootton said.
None of the panelists thought it would be an easy process of shifting to reintroduce agriculture into the curriculum. They cited issues from the expectation of what education looks like – students sitting in a classroom – to what types of education is praised by the leaders.
“Until we start to value all education equally we will have people asking ‘where’s my lecture’,” Conroy said.
Bob Rosane, the superintendent of the Franklin Central Supervisory Union, said push back from the community, the parents and students is the reason it is difficult to place hands-on agriculture resources in the schools.
“It’s less about integrating ag. into the system and more about rebuilding the education system,” Rosane said. At this time schools are designed in a teacher-centric model as opposed to a learning centric model.
By the time students reach fourth and fifth grade, they already have an expectation about what school should be like so it is about catching children early, agreed Rosane and Rob Macri, of the Farm for City Kids Foundation.
Farm for City Kids is a program that takes inner city students and brings them to the farm. Macri said he works to bring the goals of the students, the teachers and himself together into a single program. For the students who come it’s about touching and feeding the animal as well as playing in the dirt; for the teachers is often about re-iterating the practical math and science concepts that are taught in the classroom; and for Macri the goal is to make sure the children understand the connection to the Earth and the food cycle.
Orly Munzing, the executive director of Strolling of the Heifers and Slow Living Summit, spent the early part of her career as an educator and now works to create the right connections between farmers and students in need. She works to find grants, to find education programs and to grow those programs so they are supported within the existing structure instead of added programming.
“I really believe you need a whole pie not just a piece of the pie” Munzing said.