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The New Agriculture Classroom

How a teacher revived student interest in agricultural education.

Five years ago, the administration at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg, Pa., couldn’t have imagined students crowding a hallway to peer into a greenhouse, cooing at tiny pink piglets. They wouldn’t have imagined students talking about those births for years to come after witnessing it in person or via live video stream.

Mike Woods

For Mike Woods ’09 Ag and Extension Education, it’s just another day on the job.

When Woods arrived, Cumberland Valley was looking for someone to revive its agricul-tural science program, which began to dwindle after the retirement of longtime Cumberland Valley agriculture teacher Bob Leib ’72 Ag Ed, who ran the program for 33 years.

And revive it he did.

When he joined the faculty, enrollment in the agriculture program hovered around 130 students, and the school’s FFA chapter had 37 members. This year, FFA has grown to 170, and the enrollment in the ag program for 2013–2014 has nearly doubled, making it the second largest chapter in Pennsylvania. In only three years, Woods managed to increase involvement in FFA by more than 400 percent.

At Cumberland Valley, agriculture education consists of three critical components: classroom and laboratory work; membership in the student organization FFA, which helps develop leadership and career skills; and a supervised educational experience (SAE), a student-designed, hands-on project that spans their four-year high school career.

The 60-year-old agricultural science program has never been more popular.

The new ag classroom

Mike Woods’s classroom isn’t exactly a classroom. Sure, he’s got a room with a chalkboard, desks, motivational posters, and awards lining the walls. But outside the door he’s set up a science lab. Along with a lab bench and equipment, you’ll find a few snakes, mice, turtles, and an iguana. Look to the right—a state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Head out into the open air to the “barn,” a makeshift space attached to the school that shelters two curious goats, a shy sheep, two territorial chickens, a mama pig named Peaches, and her boisterous piglets. Woods’s classroom also includes the FARM—Future Agriscientist Research Management center, a patch of land near the parking lot that the students use for agricultural research. Harvests from the FARM benefit a local charity and help feed families in the community.

It’s all part of a hands-on education in agricultural science—an education Woods experienced firsthand when he was a student at Cumberland Valley. After graduating from Penn State, he spent a year teaching at another school district until he heard Cumberland Valley was looking to revamp its agriculture program.

Woods answered the call.

“I don’t teach my students with a cookie-cutter mold,”  Woods said. “I start with the parameters and guidelines of the CASE (Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education) program. But from there I build a program suited to each particular student class.”

This year, a lot of students are interested in veterinary science. So Peaches the sow joined the classroom. Peaches was donated to the program when she was pregnant, and Woods adopted her to teach the students about the birthing and nurturing process. Her piglets’ birth was a major event at the school, and Woods even set up a live video stream to broadcast it online. All told, nearly 400 people watched the live stream of the piglets’ birth, some from as far away as California and the United Kingdom. In fact, the live stream pulled in so many viewers, a traffic overload crashed the network for the entire school district.

Prior to the birth, students were taught about the process, why castrations and vaccinations are performed, and the proper and humane ways to perform the procedure. Then, students in the CASE Animal Science II course, which has a veterinary approach, became the student technicians who performed the tasks as interested students observed.

Although Peaches and her piglets have played a big part in Woods’s recent teachings, “agricultural science isn’t just plows, sows, and cows,” he said. “It includes twenty-first-century applied STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And if you’re going to become part of that industry and survive, you need to ensure you’re always one step ahead of the game.”

In everything he does, Woods stresses to students and community members that agriculture touches each living person’s life in a profound and critical way. It’s the science of survival: making sure we have food to eat, fibers for clothing and shelter, and clean water to drink.

Making it work

It’s no secret that it’s a trying time for educators in America. With every budget cycle, it seems, funding is cut and costs rise. Cumberland Valley may have a relatively impressive wealth of resources, but even they aren’t immune to budget cuts.

Many schools forego programs in agricultural science because they can be expensive. To grow his program, Woods has applied for grants and continues to do so. He asks for in-kind donations and seeks volunteers from local businesses, parents, and farmers. FFA students host fundraising events like “A-Day for Agriculture Awareness” to engage the community and find support. May 2012’s event featured the groundbreaking ceremony for the PA Preferred garden and FARM as well as agricultural exhibits, a farmers market, hayrides and horse rides, a petting zoo, blood drive, 5K run/walk, and local craft and food vendors.

“Everybody’s in bad shape trying to keep their programs going,” said Barbara Gleim, president of the Cumberland Valley School Board. “Over the past few years, we’ve had to make cuts instead of grow things. But Mike doesn’t give up. He reached out to the community, and the community responded.”

“CV has always been a school with lots of community support,” said Woods’s predecessor, retired Cumberland Valley agriculture teacher Bob Leib. “Real hands-on education is expensive. That’s why it takes support from administration and the community, but I think it really relegates you to an outstanding program.”

Beyond that, CV succeeds because of Woods’s dedication. Sometimes he stays at the school until 1:00 a.m., preparing for an event, filling out grant applications, spreading topsoil, or tending to the plants—whatever needs to be done.

“He just goes above and beyond,” Gleim said. “I can sit here and go on and on and list all things he’s done to bring agricultural science to our forefront, and that’s only been in three years. When it gets tough, we have teachers who step up, like Mike Woods, who go out and raise the money that needs to be raised.”

“It’s enthusiasm,” said Cumberland Valley eleventh-grade principal Dr. Mike Jones ’86 WLS. “His passion and his commitment make the program great.”

Finding inspiration

“I grew up on a farm, and I knew I could go into production agriculture and go on dairy farming, but I knew I could make a deeper impact by educating youth on where their food, fiber, and natural resources come from,” Woods said. “Because, let’s face it, without agriculture, we’d be naked, hungry, and homeless.”

As innovative as his teaching method is, Woods said he wouldn’t be where he is without Penn State. “I’m very thankful for the learning opportunities I received at Penn State, and the professional relationships developed.” He said his training, development opportunities, and involvement with clubs and organizations helped develop connections that will last throughout his career. “I can still rely on peers, professors, and advisers to help bounce ideas around,” he said.

Woods’s biggest inspiration, though, is Bob Leib, who ran the Cumberland Valley agriculture program while Woods was making his first impact there—as a student. Like Woods, Leib was also a Cumberland Valley High School alum who went back to his roots to teach there after graduating from Penn State.

“I was at Cumberland Valley for 33 years,” Leib said. “One thing I think we really had going for us then was that we actually practiced the FFA motto: Learning to do and doing to learn. Mike’s really ramped that up with hands-on learning, and I think that’s the way you reach kids.”

“It makes me proud that he was one of mine, and that he’s taken our program back to where it should be. Our community deserves to be out in the forefront. He’s gotten them there,” Leib said.

Paying it forward

Woods does more than apply his Penn State education in the classroom. He inspires students to go on and do the same, as Leib had done before him.

Tyler Schaeffer graduated from Woods’s Cumberland Valley High School agriculture program and is now pursuing a Penn State ag and extension education degree to be a teacher.

“The year Mr. Woods came was the year we really started to reach a new level,” Schaeffer said. “I had thought about teaching a little, but I don’t think I seriously considered it until he started teaching at CV. He really pushed us toward trying new things.”

Woods pushed aspects of agricultural education that had a big impact on students, Schaeffer said, including the parliamentary procedure team and a trip to Massachusetts for the Big E competition, FFA’s annual showcase of the best in the eastern region. He also encouraged students to start an ag marketing team and helped them develop a business plan for a national competition.

“Mr. Woods told us there’s not a limit to what we could do,” Schaeffer said. “Before, we just did what we always did. Mr. Woods brought that invigoration that we needed, and he kept us asking, ‘Why can’t we do more?’”

Current students are feeling the same impact. Ninth-grader Cheyenne Murlatt said she wants to be a veterinary technician, but she doesn’t have access to many animals to learn from and bond with at her home. Woods and the other students give her an agricultural environment where she can learn and grow. “This has become like my second family,” she said.

Tyler Schaeffer sums up his CVHS agricultural science program experience: “Mr. Woods was the guiding force for me to take advantage of the many opportunities in agriculture. I wouldn’t be in the career path I’m headed toward if it wasn’t for him and all we did.”

That’s the new ag classroom.

by Rebecca Jones
Photographs by Matthew Lester