Agricultural Science majors are developing and improving their teaching skills through hands-on experience in the STEM Lab. These students learn science, technology, engineering and math—or STEM—through skills-based learning activities. Woodworking, electrical wiring and welding are some of the skills students practice. The STEM Lab aims to expose agricultural science majors to these skills and to teach them how to guide others through the process.
“We mostly give [students] an opportunity to practice these skills, and then we teach them how to teach others,” said Jason McKibben, a graduate assistant who is one of the key leaders in the STEM Lab project.
He explained that producing more effective teachers will generate more opportunities in agriculture for high school students, one of the primary goals of the project. Upon graduation these students will be reaching more than 5,000 new high school students each year.
Jay P. Hancock is an assistant lecturer that has an integral role within the STEM Lab. He believes that rather than simply integrating the science and math they should aim to teach the students how to one day include it in their own lesson plans.
“Our main goal is not so much to incorporate the STEM as it is to teach instructors how to incorporate the STEM,” said Hancock. “We are putting a lot of our emphasis on training instructors who will in turn be incorporating STEM into lessons with their students.”
Mckibben said that the current shortage of agricultural teachers will negatively impact the future. He stressed that a great number of teachers are in demand for high school vocational agriculture programs statewide. Leaders of the STEM project hope they can help relieve that demand and stimulate a continuing interest in agriculture for high school students.
Hancock said that the students they are teaching now will eventually become teachers themselves.
“Ultimately we have students of our students, we are training the trainers and it’s an outreach kind of thing,” Hancock said. “The trainers that we teach will prepare their students better to enter the workforce or higher education.”
As a former agricultural teacher, McKibben understands the impact teachers can have on high school students. He said that if they are able to produce a higher quality agricultural teacher some of the pressure for more teachers could be alleviated and more opportunities would be provided for the students.
In order to train higher quality teachers Hancock said students need to be better prepared in certain areas of science and math.
“There has been a deficit in what’s been done, not just here but across the state, especially in areas of ag-mechanics and horticulture,” Hancock said. “There’s really a need for more training that is not there and we are working on that.”
Hancock said that their audience is not limited to just current students. They hope to reach practicing teachers who are already out in the field and others in related areas who might need the same type of training.
The agricultural science students are currently being trained in a WWII commissary building on Riverside campus, which is located almost 12 miles from the main Texas A&M campus. Due to the condition and location of the current facility, the ALEC department has undertaken the project of building a new state-of-the-art laboratory. The new 20,000-square-foot Agricultural STEM integration lab will be located close to the current AgriLife Complex on West Campus.
“We envision that once we get it in place we’ll have folks from all around the university wanting to come use the facility,” Hancock said.
Rather than simply waiting around for a new facility the STEM lab leaders have already begun the process of expanding the program by bringing in new equipment. Hancock said that they are trying to create a model of what STEM lab leaders believe agriculture departments could be.
“It’s not just a facility and it’s not just equipment,” Hancock said. “It is facility, equipment and staff—it’s a whole picture.”
The STEM lab is helping to give context to science and mathematics that will help future agricultural teachers inspire high school students to engage in agriculture. According to McKibben this results in generations of success within the agriculture industry.
“At some point there was a catalyst,” he said referring to previous generations. “Something changed. One member of the family changed in a positive way.”
McKibben strongly believes producing better agricultural teachers will result in more “catalyst” students who will pave the way for a successful future in agriculture.