Educating students in agriculture: Devils Tower FFA builds student-centered program
Hulett – In the small, rural community of Hulett, nearly 50 students spent at least part of each school day in Jim Pannell’s agriculture education classroom, which is a multi-site facility focused on education opportunities that teach students to think critically to solve problems.
“In Hulett’s K-12 school, we have 136 students,” says Jim Pannell, who’s been teaching agriculture education since 2010. “I see 48 unduplicated kids in the course of a day.”
For Pannell, the most important part of teaching is engaging students in a hands-on learning process.
“We have a school farm, and our shop program is pretty extensive,” he says. “When I got here, there wasn’t a very strong shop program, so we started them small and built from there.”
They work on a variety of projects tailored to student needs.
“The majority of my students aren’t traditional ranch kids,” Pannell explains. “Many of the kids might live in the country, but their parents work in town. I also have more students who are likely to pursue vocational post-secondary education than ag degrees. We’re looking for ways to engage them here.”
If that means they’re building a history project in the shop, Pannell says he’s willing to work with students to learn the core skills – regardless of whether they are building a trailer or a Roman shield.
Pannell also believes it is his job to expose students to new things.
“My job is to expose kids to the various occupations in the ag industry and help them figure out what they like,” he says.
Hulett School offers seven ag periods, but Pannell says, with the small school, students take whatever course they can get into.
“Every kid has to take English and math, and sometimes, that overlaps with the ag class they would be in, so we give them the chance to be in ag class,” he explains. “Most of my classes have a mix of junior high students through seniors.”
He creatively utilizes technology and peer mentorship to teach students, which are at a variety of levels.
“I’ve got a couple of really good seniors who can help demonstrate and mentor the younger students if I’m working with another group,” Pannell says. “They’ll have opportunities to work on their own projects, too, but I’ll use their help with younger students.”
He also encourages students to use resources like YouTube and the internet to learn new skills.
“For example, one student was working on a trailer,” Pannell says. “I walked into the shop to see him on his phone. When I walked over, he was watching a wiring demonstration on YouTube.”
“I want to teach students how to learn,” he adds. “That is most important.”
Outside the shop
For those students who aren’t as interested in the shop, Pannell also encourages animal science and other projects.
“Our school farm allows us to run trials and incorporate students who aren’t as interested in being in the shop,” Pannell explains, noting that every student must jump in and try every aspect of class, but they are allowed to follow up on their passions.
The farm includes a barn, livestock pens, chicken coop, high tunnel and raised garden beds. The property was acquired with funding from the School Facilities Commission.
“We were able to purchase the land for an outdoor classroom,” Pannell explains. “The field wasn’t being used, and it started as a place where kids in town could have a place to keep livestock.”
Originally, however, the land was leased from the owner.
“We put up a lean-to and corrals because we didn’t own the land,” he says, noting that, after they purchased the land, he set his sights on building a barn. “We finished the barn in the fall of 2014.”
Cash donations and grants were instrumental in putting the facility together, and Pannell notes that in-kind donations in the form of labor and equipment helped make the project a reality.
“Our school district maintenance supervisor Tuffy Peterson was also really important,” Pannell says. “Our kids would go help Tuffy and others build the barn. We even spent Christmas vacation one year insulating it. Parents and students were all involved.”
Since building the barn on the school farm, Pannell notes that a number of students house lambs and pigs in the facility.
Austin Butler, a senior in Hulett, says, “Usually, in December, I bring my lambs into town. We ultrasound them, shear and whatnot.”
He comments that it provides him easier access to his lambs, and then everyone can learn from the project.
“We also bring in the elementary school kids to show them more about ag,” Butler continues. “It’s pretty cool to be involved in.”
Taylor Penning, another senior, adds, “It’s fun to watch the kids when they come in. They have no clue about things like shearing sheep or doctoring pigs. Everybody gets something out of the school farm.”
The farm has hosted everything from pigs and sheep to goats and cattle.
“We have a couple young ladies working on a feed trial to compare different feeds,” Pannell says. “I also have a young man who wanted to learn to freeze brand. Instead of just freeze branding, which we could teach in 10 minutes, we’re going to put together an experiment to see how dry ice works compared to liquid nitrogen and to test how long the brand should be applied.”
“Having the farm available is pretty cool,” he comments.
Garrett White, Hulett senior, says, “It’s really nice that the facility is available.”
For Pannell, community partnerships are important in helping young people to learn.
“We have people stop in to see what’s going on, and we bring local experts in to teach out a variety of things,” Pannell says, citing the sawmill, carpenters, electricians, veterinarians and more who have all visited the class as guest teachers. “My kids interact with these adults, which helps them learn.”
He adds, “The community is a big part of our program and our school. We’re proud of what we’re doing here, and we want to continue to showcase that in our own community and across the state.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.