Vol. 74

Exploring Agricultural Literacy: Instructional Practices for Advancing Student Writing in Agricultural Education

Chris Clemons, Auburn University,

Jason D. McKibben, Auburn University,

Clare E. Hancock, Auburn University,

James R. Lindner, Auburn University,

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This qualitative study investigated instructional practices SBAE teachers use in their lessons to develop knowledge and understanding of content and disciplinary words, terms, and phrases. The overarching question guiding this research study addressed what pedagogical practices SBAE teachers incorporate within their lessons for developing disciplinary literacy. The theoretical basis for this study was structured using Bandura’s model of triadic reciprocal causation (1997). Three research questions guided this study: 1) What methods of instruction did secondary SBAE teachers use to develop agricultural literacy in SBAE students? 2) What assessments did secondary SBAE teachers use to measure if students are developing literacy skills in agricultural education? 3) How did secondary SBAE teachers incorporate agricultural literacy into agricultural students’ development? The participants consisted of practicing secondary school agriscience teachers in Alabama. The data yielded four primary themes organized into four sections. The findings of this study indicated that SBAE teachers used explicit explanations to bring new concepts and vocabulary to students, motivated their learning through group work, and led them in project-based activities to apply new ideas in real-life situations. SBAE teachers were helping students gain agricultural knowledge, which is foundational to agricultural literacy. Teachers expressed frustration with administrative oversight on literacy instruction and developing speaking, listening, and writing skills. Teachers reported that vocabulary was a mandated component of the agriscience curriculum. However, their instruction needs to include writing exercises to improve student literacy in agricultural education. Recommendations for further study indicate that teachers build on their present writing activities, add extended individual writing to the learning process, and consolidate new vocabulary knowledge by applying new terms and concepts by writing to synthesize ideas and concepts. It is also recommended that SBAE teachers work collaboratively with their administration to develop a deeper understanding of the best practices and proven methods for improving literacy skills in agriculture.


Articulating the knowledge and understanding of agriculture requires the teaching and furtherance of reading, writing, and communicating using specialized words and terms. This tenet has been the cornerstone of agricultural education since the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 and the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. Hasselquist et al. (2019) stated: “Disciplinary literacy includes the way the content is organized, how it communicates key information, technical vocabulary, and how texts are used.” (p. 141). Understanding pedagogical practices for developing disciplinary knowledge and improving reading, writing, and communication in agriculture is vital for student learning. Instructional literacy practices in school-based agricultural education (SBAE) classrooms enable students to master the distinction between being disciplinary literate and possessing knowledge and understanding in agriscience education. Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) characterized disciplinary literacy as speaking, listening, and writing using specialized words and terms. Therefore, all SBAE teachers are responsible for instructing, developing, and promoting literacy (Park & Osborne, 2007), often through agricultural contexts. According to Lemley, 2019, the expectation exists in SBAE to support agricultural education students to meet the shifting expectations of the 21st-century workforce. This study addressed teachers’ understanding of integrating writing into instructional activities to affect student literacy.

The Smith-Hughes Act (C.F.R., 1960) addressed the improvement of agricultural practices without explicitly mentioning literacy: “The preparation of those preparing to enter upon the work of the farm or of the farm home” (p. 107). The insinuation of this passage suggests that improving agricultural practices would require those individuals engaged in the profession to possess literacy to advance knowledge. This passage is narrowly descriptive of today’s expectations associated with agricultural education. However, the foresight for improving instructional literacy methods in the 21st century remains just as profound. The historical foundations of knowledge and understanding in agricultural education are replete with the importance and value of literacy. Roberts and Ball (2009) supported a society of agriculturally literate citizens and the dualistic role of SBAE, the development of a skilled workforce, and literate contributors to society. Blythe et al. (2015) reported that today’s society requires scientifically literate citizens, and developing an agreed-upon definition of agriculturally literate students was supported by Hess and Trexler (2011). Clemons et al. (2018) highlighted that limited studies since the early 1990s have attempted to close the distance between being literate in agriculture and agricultural literacy.

The value of a content literate populace or students endeavoring to become disciplinarily literate was described in Wallace’s Farmer Weekly Journal (1908) as cited by Cremin (1967), “It is hard for many a middle-aged farmer to get a clear idea of what is meant by protein, carbohydrate, nitrogen-free extract, etc.” (p. 45). The proceeding statement implies the importance of words, terms, and phrases for citizens to become disciplinarily literate. To address the gap between being literate and possessing literacy, a distinction between the terms should be addressed: “Agricultural literacy differs from agricultural education in that its focus is on educating students about the field of agriscience rather than preparing students for work within the field of agriscience” (Vallera & Bodzin, 2016, pp. 102–103). The gap between knowledge and understanding of agriculture and agricultural literacy accentuates the importance of literacy education in SBAE classrooms. Developing student literacy prevents them from falling behind in SBAE classrooms and their future employment (Hasselquist et al., 2019). 

The development of agricultural literacy has been fostered over 125 years through curriculum development and has shaped the role of SBAE. In Wallace’s Farmer Weekly Journal (1908), the connection between well-trained agriculturalists possessing knowledge and understanding and developing literacy begins with SBAE students. Agriculture education teachers experience a variety of student learning deficiencies in reading, writing, and communicating agricultural words and terms. Hasselquist et al. (2019) reported the challenges SBAE teachers experience when introducing instructional literacy strategies in classroom lessons. The challenges stem from SBAE teachers’ belief that literacy instruction is supplemental to the content area, teacher attitudes towards literacy instruction are fostered from personal experiences and literacy skills should be taught outside their classroom (Hasselquist et al., 2019). Hasselquist et al. (2019) supported Clemons et al. (2018) findings that agricultural professionals have specific feelings and thoughts about the profession. Park and Osborne (2007) found that only 14 percent of SBAE teachers promoted reading strategies for SBAE students in SBAE classrooms. Tummons et al. (2020) reported that literacy skills and techniques are vital for SBAE teachers, although acquiring instructional skills is not always taught in teacher education programs. When accounting for student learning difficulties in literacy, SBAE teachers do not see themselves as English teachers (Park et al., (2010). Essential reading, writing, and communication skills are necessary to acquire knowledge and may allow an understanding of agriculture concepts. This skill gap can be difficult for some students to overcome.

Shoulders and Myers (2013) reported that teaching agricultural literacy often relies on using multiple pedagogical styles to provide students with a foundation for learning. Traditional learning environments rely heavily on teacher-centered dissemination (Alston & English, 2007). Various learning models structure the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge and understanding in the 21st-century agriscience classroom. Kolb’s (2012) experiential learning theory, project-based learning (Smith & Rayfield, 2016), and social development theory (Vygotsky, 1978) are widely used to frame teaching literacy in SBAE classrooms. McKim et al. (2017) referred to the value of instructional methods, knowledge, and problem-solving as pedagogy, or a “Common [set] of competencies that include motivating students to learn, managing behavior, teaching students with special needs, and using technology as a teaching tool.” (p. 3). Instructional methods provide for contextual hands-on learning in agricultural education. However, reading, writing, and communication development using skills acquired through knowledge and understanding is often not emphasized during instruction. Understanding the methods SBAE teachers use to improve student literacy may further the research conducted by Tummons et al. (2020) regarding how practitioners and researchers consider new teaching and learning strategies for pre-service and practicing SBAE teachers.

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical basis for this study was structured using Bandura’s model of triadic reciprocal causation (1997). Bandura (1997) theorized that the interconnectivity between the person (P), environment (E), and behavior (B) affects the desired change and postulated reciprocity between the person (P), the environment (E), and behavior (B). Vygotsky (1978) believed that for learning to occur, the “Student will be interacting with people in their environment and cooperating with their peers” (p. 90).

Bandura (1997) reported personal (P) factors as “the beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (p. 3). This assumption provided the basis for examining teacher-initiated literacy instruction in secondary school agriscience education. Bandura (1997) described the environment (E) as a pathway for influencing self-efficacy by using models to impact student learning (Bandura, 1997; Roberts et al., 2008). When students learn within the classroom environment, self-efficacy can be validated through comparative methods of individual performance when measured against their peers. Self-efficacy of the individual (teacher) “refers to the beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce the given attainments” (Bandura, 1997, p. 3).

Roberts et al. (2008) reported that self-efficacy is specialized, where a person can possess high efficacy in one area and diminished efficacy in others. Fuhrman and Rubenstein (2017) wrote that a teacher’s ethos of education occurs through “interactions between the individual, behavior, and the environment.” (p. 225). Shunck (2004) citing Rosenthal and Zimmerman (1978), reported that skills to foster declarative, procedural, and conditional literacy instruction for students are dependent on performance and observation, reinforcing the person (P) and the environment (E) to affect behavior (B). Balancing the need for positive self-efficacy and improving student outcomes is challenging (McKibben et al., 2022). For example, high self-efficacy in content instruction may result in low self-efficacy when SBAE teachers apply literacy instruction in the agriscience classroom.

Purpose and Research Questions

This study aimed to investigate the pedagogical practices secondary SBAE teachers incorporated within their lessons for developing knowledge, understanding, and improvement of agriculturally literate students. Three research questions guided this investigation: (1) What methods of instruction did secondary SBAE teachers use to develop agricultural literacy in SBAE students? (2) What assessments did secondary SBAE teachers use to measure if students are developing literacy skills in agricultural education? (3) How did secondary SBAE teachers incorporate agricultural literacy into agricultural students’ development?


We developed a one-day professional development session addressing agricultural literacy to aid teachers’ understanding of the differences between agricultural literacy and being agriculturally literate. The ten participants indicated their interest in the professional development workshop during the Alabama Association of Agricultural Educators conference. SBAE teachers attended the professional development because they were interested in literacy education and developing literate students in SBAE coursework. After the professional development session, the same ten secondary SBAE teachers agreed to participate in the study, and interviews were scheduled after the professional development session. Telephone interviews were conducted within three weeks of the professional development meeting, with each interview lasting 40 minutes. Interviews were recorded and later transcribed.

The participants comprised four women (40.0%) and six men (60.0%). Following qualitative design measures for anonymity (Kaiser, 2009), teachers self-selected pseudonyms to protect their identities and responses: Aloe Vera, Big Country, Hank, Jane, Ken Powers, Lee, Mini Mouse, Otis, Pike Place, and Winnie. The small sample size of this study is supported by existing research (Young &Casey, 2018; Hennick et al., 2016), where small sample sizes in qualitative research can represent the full experiences of the participants. Delbecq et al. (1975) also supported the use of ten to fifteen subjects in qualitative research when the backgrounds of the participants are homogenous. Three structured interview questions were posed to each participant with follow-up questions based on responses used to collect data: a) What methods of instruction do you most commonly use to develop knowledge and understanding of SBAE students? b) What types of assessments do you use to measure if students possess literacy or are literate in the discipline? and c) Where do you believe knowledge, understanding, and being disciplinary literate should be introduced in lesson design and delivery? The structured response questions were prepared before the interviews based on previous literacy research and the stated theoretical framework (Merriam, 2009). Audio file interviews from each participant were captured digitally.

Data were transcribed, coded, organized by findings, and arranged using theme development. Open coding, a component of qualitative data analysis, uses the constant comparative method to discover consistent themes within the data. Open coding allows researchers to identify the participants’ thoughts, ideas, and concepts to drive the thematic development process instead of predetermined thematic concepts (Merriam, 2009). Independent analysis of participant comments was evaluated and organized using each of the three research questions and follow-up questions to the participants by the researchers. Trustworthiness of the collected data was ensured as this study’s participants possessed differentiated educational backgrounds, years of experience in education, age, and professional accomplishments. The analysis identified four primary thematic categories for organizing participant responses. Transcendental analysis provided the means for determining the essence of secondary SBAE teacher literacy instruction to develop students’ ability to be literate in agriscience (Brown et al., 2015). These processes identified data for creating themes, interpretations, and a detailed description of the instructional process. After independent coding, we used peer discussions to improve credibility (Guba & Lincoln, 1989) and establish sub-themes to better organize responses to the research questions.


Data analysis identified four primary thematic categories: 1) classroom environment (teacher controlled), the instructional methods used for the daily instruction of goals and objectives. This was the environment in which teachers set the expectations and instructional delivery models for teaching and learning; 2) the learning environment (student-controlled) reflected the skills, aptitudes, and potential gaps in knowledge and skills students demonstrate during instruction. This environment can reflect prior education, familial expectations, limitations, or the geographical location of the school and community; 3) foundational competencies (skills/materials) refer to the instructional materials that reinforce instructional lessons, including textbooks, technical manuals, news articles, and periodicals; and 4) limitations (administration) describes the policies for student learning determined outside of the teachers’ classroom or sphere of influence. These policies may include mandated assessments, administrator-determined vocabulary, or time devoted to specific instruction techniques. Subsequent analysis identified sub-themes within each thematic category.

Classroom Environment (Teacher Controlled)

The teachers reported variations in class schedules: 40.0% indicated a traditional 60/40 class period day, 50.0% taught within a four-by-four block schedule, and 10.0% experienced an eight-block class schedule. The analysis of the collected data yielded three sub-themes: instructional choice, pedagogy (methods and practices of teaching), and learning assessment.

Instructional Choice

The different methods and practices for teaching words, terms, and phrases were centered on traditional instruction (direct instruction, vocabulary identification) practices in the classroom. Participants explained that their instructional methods would depend on the content of the course. Hank explained his process for determining appropriate teaching methods for literacy instruction, “The methods of instruction would depend on the class. . . animal science class would be a lot more terminology than basic agriscience or introduction to agriscience.” Hank emphasized terminology through practical hands-on applications: “I do a lot of reading for content using engine manuals or other technical-based texts. Then, we [class] discuss terms like an air gap, oil type, and preventative maintenance. I think that’s where our focus is when reading for information.” Hank’s instruction reflected instructional choices steeped in content and disciplinary word association, reinforcement, and application.

Big Country expressed similar traditional instruction methods when determining delivery for improving knowledge and understanding. Big Country emphasized formal instruction, “I use a lot of PowerPoint materials, and students take notes from the screen.” Other participants indicated that their instructional methods were similar to their own educational experiences in high school when learning words, terms, and phrases. Hank conveyed his experiences as a veteran teacher in the secondary agriscience classroom. He stated: “In my first year of teaching, I was giving notes, lectures, PowerPoint presentations, diagrams, etc., and realized this is not what kids want . . . they want to rip their hair out.” Lee supported Hank’s first-year experiences instructing students using words, terms, and phrases and how he approached teaching content to his classes. Lee said: “I’d go around the room, and one student would read a section, and I would offer feedback and then have classroom discussion on the material being read. That’s how I taught all the students in each class.” Otis remembered being a high school sophomore and enrolling in SBAE classes. His memory provided a historical context regarding literacy instruction, which translated to his instructional style during his first two years of teaching agriscience education. Otis reflected:

I remember copying notes in high school I didn’t understand because I was more concerned with the process of taking notes from the board than what I was supposed to be learning. I was concentrating on transcribing the information instead of learning the information.

Hank reinforced high school experiences in literacy education and discussed his memories of engaging teachers and the methods they used to teach reading and writing skills. He indicated, “I had some great teachers as a high school student. My English teacher was very engaging during reading and discussion as a class. I try to mimic his methods when I teach my students.”

Pedagogy: Methods and Practices of Teaching

Each participant explained the various methods and strategies for delivering instruction, and a common theme emerged among the teachers. Delivery methods for instructional purposes included guided notes, contextual learning, scaffolding instruction, and prior educational experiences. For example, using guided notes in the classroom allowed students to direct their attention to the lesson instead of the note-taking process. Lee noted: “One thing I do is have my notes printed off, and then I provide them [notes] to the students.” Lee supported using guided notes when asked to elaborate on his experiences. He said, “I’m not your science or history teacher putting notes on the board for you [students] to copy.” Ken Powers addressed varied teaching methods through scaffolding content knowledge to establish a learning baseline for his students. He stated: “We do a lot of literacy-type strategies, including chunking text and breaking complex words and concepts down for student understanding.”

Ken Powers further explained that knowing his students’ ability levels is vital for acquiring words, terms, and phrases while learning the appropriate strategies. Ken explained how ability levels influence his instructional approach, If it’s something we need to cover, we’re going to break it down into small groups, paying attention to diverse reading levels, chunking the text, and discussing as a group.” Ken spoke of his role as the SBAE teacher when instructing students: “I will lead the students through a discussion where I ask, what does the text mean to you? We typically do this with five to six sentences, not 10 to 12 paragraphs.”

Other participants used different instructional methods when discussing words, terms, and phrases in the classroom. This analysis contrasts classroom instruction models while emphasizing pedagogical practices. Mini Mouse indicated that his delivery is more direct [instruction] in the beginning when introducing new words, terms, and phrases. He clarified how using digital video, demonstrations, and discussion provided context for vocabulary terms or the concepts being studied: “I use a lot of presentations and give examples and visuals. I talk a lot at the beginning of the class to lead the discussion.” Mini Mouse further detailed how he incorporated student involvement in the lesson: “I’ll ask for a volunteer or randomly call on students in the class. I check for understanding and use probing questions before the lesson to see where they [students] are learning.” Otis reinforced Mini Mouse’s instructional methods when discussing words, terms, and phrase instruction: “I feel like sometimes we go backward [in education]; we throw big words out first, and they [students] become overwhelmed.” Otis’ frustration was more evident when discussing vocabulary instruction in the classroom: “We [teachers] have traditionally started with vocabulary first and then explain the term out of context.” Aloe Vera explained her approach as hands-on by providing a contextual foundation. She indicated: “We must [be] very hands-on in my program. We will go to the greenhouse and practice the concept or term I introduced in class”. Aloe Vera described the hands-on approach that encapsulated her teaching:

I would take different plants and line them up in the greenhouse so we could discuss, demonstrate, and practice cuttings, division, stem cuttings, and leaf cuttings. I would show them various ways to apply the term, and they [students] would demonstrate for me to assess their understanding.

Just as important as the material presented during the lesson, Aloe Vera also spoke about the value of post-instruction formative assessment:

After applying words, terms, and phrases in the lab, we [teacher and students] would return to the classroom and review vocabulary words and associate them with pictures, and students will take notes. I found this approach works best for my students to learn.

This type of multi-faceted lesson design, which includes introduction, application, assessment, and repetition, indicates a well-designed approach to learning words, terms, and phrases (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012). 


Participants discussed using formative and summative assessments in their classrooms during the interviews. Responses varied considerably between participants, including project-based assessment, traditional testing procedures, technology applications, and administratively defined testing. Participants generally fell between traditionally assessing student performance and using non-traditional assessment methods. When evaluating students’ knowledge, words, and concepts, Lee responded: “Since students don’t have to write the notes I give them, they can bring them to class for the test, but I won’t let them photocopy.” Although he referred to summative examination, the interview questions may have limited his response. Lee had little regard for rote memorization examinations and believed that allowing students to use their notes on the exam provided more significant potential for student success.

Mini Mouse also shared this sentiment when asked to explain the purpose of assessments during and after a lesson or unit plan. Mini Mouse stated: “I don’t give a lot of tests.” The researcher probed for further explanation of how students in Mini Mouses’ classes were assessed. His response was distanced from traditional assessment to more student-driven activities where he could observe concepts and the acquisition of words, terms, and phrases. Mini Mouse explained: “I ask many questions before the lesson, and then we go out [to the mechanics lab] and apply the concepts and skills.” Pike Place explained a similar situation to Mini Mouse: “I coach them [students] to ensure the process is followed, and I assess their performance during their demonstration.”

Other participants indicated a more traditional approach to their assessment. Hank explained that his literacy exams typically include 30 to 40 questions with multiple choice, true and false, fill in the blank, and matching terms with definitions. Otis explained that his use of Scantron®, paper exams, and Kahoot, a game-based learning platform, are the typical assessment types used in his classroom.” Winnie described assessment in a less traditional sense. She said: “I usually have a matching quiz with multiple uses of the word being examined. Having this type of assessment allows students to move beyond simple recognition.”

While interviewing Winnie and probing deeper into assessment methods, she began to be more open about using technology for the formative assessment of agricultural literacy. Winnie, a young teacher (< five years’ experience), and Otis (> ten years’ experience) were the only teachers to mention using applications such as Kahoot or Quizlet platforms for assessment. Her description of the applications provided context for how she uses them in the classroom: “Typically, I ask the students to take the words from the lesson and develop phone-based quizzes that can then be shared with other students in the class.” The researcher probed for further understanding regarding the type of assessment used from these applications: “I guess I use them as more formative assessment, like a bell ringer for understanding if my students have grasped the material.” Winnie explained her rationale for using application-based programs:

In grades 7 through 9, we use technology. Kids don’t like making the quizzes but do enjoy playing the game. When the students are developing their online quizzes, they must type the terms and definitions before they can play the game.

Learning Environment (Student Controlled)

Teachers discussed the importance of the formalized student-centered learning environment and the characteristics innate to each student. Many teachers discussed the environmental conditions of learning and geography’s impact on presumptions, misconceptions, and breaking away from family-based lexicons to be literate. Participants also described education challenges when teaching words, terms, and phrases to students with learning disabilities and the role gender has in education. Otis described geographical location as limiting when learning words, terms, and phrases. Otis explained: “My kids believe that GMO’s [genetically modified organisms] will kill you, so we make a stand and deliver on the difference between sustainable, organic versus traditional farming, populations, and discuss the amount of food a traditional vs. organic producer can provide to the public.” When describing the methods used to provide instruction, Otis explained: “Most of the time, it is self-directed learning and then research for their information.”

Winnie and Jane shared their perceptions of gender and special education populations in their classrooms. Winnie described the challenges of being female when teaching young men. Winnie said: “Being a woman, boys will talk differently around me. I have to figure out how to connect with them and find the connection between how they talk and think.” Winnie further explained how family influences student learning in a rural town by saying: “A lot of time when you teach in the country, people are set in their ways. For example, I drive a Ford, the only truck I’ll ever drive.” The researchers followed Winnie’s response and redirected the question to address how she reaches these students: “They [students] want to come at it their way, and you have to figure out how to accept and encourage their views and redirect them to the correct terminology.”

Like Winnie, Jane had experienced issues with word appropriateness and questioned her ability to provide meaningful instruction to special education students. Specifically, she discussed her difficulty differentiating her teaching when focusing on agricultural literacy. Jane admitted: “I do struggle with simple things . . . I get a lot of 504 [special education modification plans] and IEP [Individualized Education Plan] students with much lower rates of literacy and possessing literacy skills.” This varied ability-level transition has been difficult for Jane: “I’m old school. I use the vocabulary in the chapters [textbook] a lot.”

Foundational Competencies (Skills/Materials)

During the interviews, teachers were asked to describe their students’ foundational literacy skills and cognitive levels when asked to learn new concepts or terms. Sub-themes emerged within Foundational Competencies and were divided into three subcategories: 1) reading or writing to learn, 2) developing knowledge and understanding, and 3) educational materials (digital and text-based instruction).

Reading or Writing to Learn

Teachers indicated similar ideas and methods when asked about their perceptions of how foundational knowledge of student literacy is established. All participants agreed that educational growth can only occur by establishing a solid literacy foundation. Ken Powers said: “I will use the Lexile levels of the material we are going to learn.” Ken Powers referenced several web-based Lexile generators (, for determining the reading level of written text for his students: We’re [agriculture educators] looking at what they [students] know: concepts, demonstration of contextual vocabulary, and their current knowledge of the term or concept being discussed.” Otis addressed the importance of establishing a context for learning before introducing more complex vocabulary during his lesson. He stated: “What we need to do is ask students if they understand how this [concept] works. If they say yes, then build on that foundation before we take notes on the concept.” Otis’s explanation of establishing foundational learning was also present in his use of technology:

I also use Instagram as an example in class and discuss a company that has a flash sale on Instagram that all my students are familiar with and then determine if they [students] understand concepts such as the law of demand. This helps me give them a common starting point since all my students use Instagram.

Hank agreed with his peers, citing the need for solid foundations in literacy before introducing more advanced content. He said: “If they’re [students] not content literate in words and concepts at the beginning of the lesson, then it’s going to be hard to hammer those skills home during the lesson.” Aloe Vera also believed the key to establishing a solid foundation for learning was determining where students are in their learning. Aloe Vera incorporates discussion and writing to assess student knowledge and then adjusts her instruction accordingly. She said: “I would ask someone to describe what they wrote. Right or wrong, the answer doesn’t matter in the beginning. We’re [teacher and students] just thinking out loud.”

Developing Knowledge and Understanding

All participants echoed the importance of teaching words, terms, and phrases. Teachers described the challenges of determining foundational knowledge before introducing new concepts and vocabulary. These challenges led to discussions with each participant about the role of learning words, terms, and phrases in agriculture and the instructional methods each participant used to improve student understanding and learning. Mini Mouse described how words and terms are introduced in a forestry lesson. He said: “I might introduce the term forestry first, then describe the term dendrology. I’ll put up a list of terms and run [a copy] the definitions for students before I start the actual teaching.”

Hank described teaching disciplinary literacy, using contextual vocabulary in his classroom, and utilizing a comparative discussion between general and disciplinary literacy. He explained:

I like to use everyday vocabulary [general literacy] as a point of reference when I teach terms and concepts. I give a point of reference, especially when teaching tool identification. Most people have a hammer or a screwdriver at home, so these items are well-known to students. Students don’t have palm sanders, skill saws, stationary equipment, or specialized tools.

Hank described his application of words, terms, and phrases in the classroom: “I describe each of the disciplinary vocabulary words and demonstrate to students how to use the tool and that often the tool’s name is similar to its function.”

Educational Materials (Digital and Text-Based Instruction)

Richards et al. (1992) defined readability as: “How easily written materials can be read and understood.” (p. 306). Each participant mentioned the use of digital and text-based learning materials. The role and use of materials varied considerably between participants during instruction. Teachers reported limited use of textbooks because of low availability and outdated information. Most indicated that textbooks were used as a supplement or reference for students, while others cited the use of textbooks for use during their absence from the classroom when a substitute teacher was present. Lee described using textbooks in the classroom: “Textbooks don’t leave the classroom, but they are used as a resource. I only ask students to use them when a sub [substitute teacher] covers my classes.” Winnie explained the difficulty related to the readability of CTE texts and her students’ abilities to comprehend textbook-based material for comprehension. She supported Lee’s analysis: “CTE texts are written at an extremely high reading level, and I just don’t understand why.”

Some teachers indicated that although textbooks are seldom used, text-based material from the Internet, research journals, trade magazines, and other sources were much more prevalent in their classrooms. Digital text delivered by tablet, computer, or mobile phone was more prominent during instruction. Teachers also described that non-textbook-based materials were more accessible to locate and were sometimes more up-to-date regarding agriculture professions when compared to textbooks. Big Country utilizes text-based materials from the Internet and reputable online publishers, “I will give the students journal articles from trade magazines like Ag Daily, Coop Magazine, Progressive Farmer, etc.

Otis and others discussed the types of materials used for text-based reading and the methods used to provide materials to students. Otis stated:

We use the Internet and CEV [Internet-based curriculum platform] because I can edit the curriculum to fit the needs of my students. I like to give them a handout or something on their Chromebook. This way, they [students] can work with me and keep on task while I teach.

Lee agreed with his peers regarding the digital delivery of text and supported his rationale for allowing personal technology devices in the classroom: “I try to utilize their [student’s] technology because we’re not going to win, so I might as well let students use them [technology] for appropriate purposes.”

Limitations (Administration)

Throughout the interviews, teachers described perceived limitations regarding learning words and phrases in the agriscience classroom. A uniform response highlighted the impact of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resource standards (AFNR), Alabama content standards, and administrative limitations for classroom instruction. The discussion of standards inclusion in daily instruction was mentioned as an administrative requirement to what teachers believed was quality SBAE instruction. Pike Place explained how she incorporates CCSS, AFNR, and Alabama content standards in her instruction: “When I give vocabulary tests, I take the standards we have to meet (AFNR, CCSS, and Alabama) and make them understandable for the age level I work with.”

Participant statements focused on administrative oversight of literacy instruction, administrative-directed literacy assessments, and short-lived interest in standards-based instruction. Mini Mouse described in detail his experience with administrative oversight between literacy and agriscience education: “A couple of years ago, when we were getting slammed with literacy [mandates] to introduce more reading, they [administration] wanted us to come up with some activities that helped with reading and writing standards.” Mini Mouse further explained that over time, administrative interest in literacy waned, and other mandates became their focus:

They [administration] backed off, which is why I feel we get on whims a lot and then get tossed from one thing to another. It’s not that the administration wants us to stop incorporating standards, but they move on to something different. I think they assume that we keep doing what we are doing.

Jane told a similar story regarding administrative oversight in her classroom regarding literacy instruction: “The curriculum specialists are pushing so hard for us to move to project-based learning and give kids a choice of assignments that we [teachers] don’t have the freedom to teach traditional literacy instruction.”

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

The findings of this study revealed that SBAE teachers were engaged in various literacy activities. However, student writing was only seldom mentioned. Participants used explicit explanations to introduce students to new agricultural concepts and vocabulary, motivated their learning through group work, and led them in project-based activities to apply new ideas in real-life situations.

When the teachers were asked to explain the methods for literacy instruction, our teachers used varying materials for student instruction, e.g., by having students review articles in periodicals, using internet-based learning platforms (CEV), comparing arguments, or creating quizzes using web-based applications. However, more evidence of sustained individual writing needed to be shared to apply new concepts to support using words, terms, and phrases for developing student literacy. This finding supports Roberts et al. (2008) that high self-efficacy in group work, limited answers, or developing web-based quizzes may be evident yet is manifested in low self-efficacy if students were to be tasked with individual writing prompts. For example, teachers should have reported using a gradual release of responsibility where students were helped to locate meanings, relate words to other words, extricate words from their initial context, and generate new contexts with emerging expertise. Participants relied primarily on contextual vocabulary teaching methods where students explained new vocabulary terms orally, allowing teachers to scaffold students’ usage of words, terms, and phrases during classroom instruction and project-based activities.

Understanding the assessments used to measure speaking, listening, and writing using specialized words and terms (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012) in SBAE provided insight into how teachers determine student growth. Teachers listened closely to students’ conversational responses and used formative assessment to redirect their understanding of concepts and vocabulary. Instead, teachers reported that changing students’ lexicon to define content-driven vocabulary was too difficult. Instead, teachers would list the vocabulary words in a handout. These findings suggest that teachers in this study do not fully implement Bandura’s (1997) model of interaction between the person, environment, and behavior. Instead, instruction of words, terms, and phrases was predominantly spoken and not emphasized through independent student writing. The implications of this de-emphasis indicate that students may not acquire vital skills in agricultural literacy because SBAE teachers do not possess foundational literacy instruction and training skills.

Consequently, students need to develop speaking, listening, and writing skills using specialized words and terms in agriculture, as supported by Shanahan and Shanahan (2012). This means they must acquire speaking, reading, and writing tools to learn about agriculture with their teachers and then be able to write independently by receiving foundational literacy skills. Park et al. (2010) reinforced the importance of student literacy and emphasized the nature of agricultural education as a content application. The work of Rosenthal and Zimmerman (1978) supports this finding as high self-efficacy in one area (content instruction) is juxtaposed against low self-efficacy (literacy instruction efficacy) of the teacher. Ultimately, the data supported the idea that knowing and teaching content must likely be reinforced through student writing for improved literacy.

Administrative oversight of the instructional processes is a concept that has been introduced previously in education. Participants expressed frustration with administrative oversight related explicitly to literacy instruction and the development of students to possess speaking, listening, and writing skills in agriscience. Teachers reported that vocabulary was a mandated component of the agriscience curriculum. However, their instruction needs to be improved to determine the best practices for improving students’ ability to become literate and develop the necessary skills for success. The implications of this mandated oversight of literacy instruction are the removal of the agriscience teacher as the content area expert and their expertise in creating multiple pedological styles to improve the literacy of students in agriscience (Shoulders & Myers, 2013).

Participants should build on their present writing activities to add extended individual writing to the learning process and hands-on application of new concepts (Park et al., 2010) to reinforce literacy instruction. For example, students could use content-literacy guides to focus their textbook reading on essential ideas and writing activities in SBAE classrooms. They could follow up their project-based activities by writing formal lab reports from their observational notes. They could consolidate their new vocabulary knowledge by applying new terms and new concepts by writing for synthesis, and they could publish their ideas on Internet websites to share them with other students and professionals beyond the classroom. Such writings could serve as summative evaluations of students’ understanding of concepts introduced in class and appropriate usage of new vocabulary in the discipline.

The findings indicated a perceived need for an administrative understanding of pedagogical practices for literacy instruction in the SBAE classroom. Participants spoke of frustration, mandates, and limited instructional models for developing students’ understanding of literacy. It can be concluded that administrators need to understand better the intricacies and specialized skills required for the instruction of secondary agriscience education. It is recommended that SBAE teachers and administrators discuss how writing in the agricultural education curriculum could develop a deeper understanding of the best practices and proven methods for instructing students to develop literacy skills in agriculture. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, SBAE teachers should highlight the interconnection of student experiences in labs, greenhouses, and other agricultural experiences. These conversations and collaborative efforts could reduce the frustration and perceived oversight participants felt as limiting their expertise.

We recommend that teachers continue to develop their instruction methods for incorporating speaking, listening, and writing in the secondary agriscience education curriculum. The outcome of such development could further SBAE students’ literacy beyond just the acquisition of agricultural knowledge. Instead, students will be better prepared as future advocates and consumers of agricultural services and have opportunities to extend factual discussions to more audiences. We expect this new emphasis on speaking, listening, and writing using specialized words and terms in agriculture to provide students with the literacy tools agricultural professionals use to read and write to learn agriscience.


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Meaningful Skills for the Agricultural Workforce: Assessing the Confidence Levels of Agricultural Educators to Integrate STEM into their Curriculum

William Norris, New Mexico State University,

Lacey Roberts-Hill, New Mexico State University,

PDF Available


Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has become an integral piece of agricultural education. Unfortunately, employers claim that students existing secondary and post-secondary education do not possess the necessary STEM-based skills to be successful in the workforce. Additionally, research shows inconsistent results regarding the STEM achievement of agricultural education students. These inconsistent student achievement results are coupled with gender-based disparities regarding STEM. Many female agricultural educators claim to be unconfident in their abilities to integrate some STEM concepts into the agricultural education curriculum. These issues concern the agricultural education profession, considering STEM’s importance in today’s educational environment. This study assessed the confidence of male and female agricultural educators to integrate STEM-based AFNR standards into their curriculum. A total of 399 agricultural educators were contacted in three states- [State A], [State B], and [State C]. The response rate was 17.04% and resulted in 68 responses. The results found that female agricultural educators ranked their confidence in integrating STEM statistically lower than male agricultural educators within the Environmental Services (p = .01), Food Products and Processing (p = .02), Natural Resources (p = .03), Plant Systems (p = .05), and Power, Structural, and Technical Systems pathways (p < .001). Additionally, male agricultural educators ranked the Plant Systems, Animal Science, and Power, Structural, and Technical Systems pathways as the areas they felt the most confident integrating STEM and ranked the Biotechnology, Agribusiness, and Environmental Services pathways the lowest. The female agricultural educators ranked the Animal Science, Plant Systems, and the Natural Resources pathways as the areas they had the most confidence in integrating STEM, and they ranked the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems, Environmental Services, and Biotechnology pathways the lowest. The researchers recommend targeted professional development for educators and additional research on agricultural educators’ STEM integration confidence levels.


For more than 100 years, the agricultural industry has become more technologically advanced and has relied heavily on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to propel the industry forward (Swafford, 2018). As the world population grows, the agricultural industry must increase the use of technology to produce more food with fewer resources (Frióna et al., 2019). Since agricultural education’s inception, one of its main goals has been to provide a prepared workforce for the agricultural industry (Fristoe, 2017; Martinez, 2007). According to Scherer et al. (2019), “[p]rogress and prosperity within the United States, as well as its global competitiveness, cannot remain strong if young people are not STEM-literate and well prepared to enter the workforce of STEM professionals” (p. 29). To achieve this longstanding goal of a prepared and competent workforce, agricultural education must prioritize integrating STEM skills into the curriculum to remain relevant for the 21st century (Chumbley et al., 2015; Kelly & Knowles, 2016; Smith et al., 2015; Stubbs & Meyers, 2016; Swafford, 2018; Wang & Knoblock, 2020).

While the need for STEM skills in industry is well documented in the published literature (Chumbley et al., 2015; Kelly & Knowles, 2016; Swafford, 2018; Wang & Knoblock, 2020), industry reports that students exiting secondary and post-secondary education are deficient in STEM skills (McGunagle & Zizka, 2020). According to McGunagle and Zizka (2020), “employability skills… are often under-estimated and under-trained in educational institutions, and, more specifically, in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education” (p. 2). This gap between employees’ STEM skills and employers’ expectations is concerning for the agricultural education profession.

While the importance of STEM integration is apparent, agricultural education has not been adequately successful in integrating STEM (Clark et al., 2013; McKim et al., 2018; Plank, 2001). There have also been mixed results in the STEM achievement of students enrolled in agricultural education (Chiasson & Burnett, 2001; Clark et al., 2013; McKim et al., 2018; Nolin & Parr, 2013; Plank, 2001; Theriot & Kotrlik, 2009). Some researchers found that student achievement in science is significantly higher in students enrolled in agricultural education (Chiasson & Burnett, 2001; Theriot & Kotrlik, 2009), while other studies show there is no statistical difference or achievement in science is lower in students enrolled in agricultural education (Clark et al., 2013; McKim et al., 2018). In addition, some studies have concluded that achievement in mathematics is higher in students enrolled in agricultural education (Nolin & Parr, 2013), but some researchers suggest that differences in math achievement are not statistically significant or lower in agricultural education students (Plank, 2001). These conclusions are troubling for agricultural educators, considering the importance placed on STEM in today’s educational environment.

In addition to inconsistencies in the STEM achievement of agricultural education students, female agricultural educators are less confident in integrating certain STEM concepts into the agriculture, food, and natural resources (AFNR) curriculum (Smith et al., 2015). Furthermore, women are less likely to major in STEM at the post-secondary level (Beede et al., 2011; Bloodhart et al., 2020; Koch et al., 2022) and are less likely to enter STEM professions (Beede et al., 2011). These gender-based disparities could cause female agricultural educators to integrate less STEM into their agricultural education courses, reducing their students’ exposure to STEM in the context of AFNR.

The inconsistencies in STEM achievement of agricultural education students (Chiasson & Burnett, 2001; Clark et al., 2013; McKim et al., 2018; Nolin & Parr, 2013; Plank, 2001; Theriot & Kotrlik, 2009) combined with gender-based aversions towards STEM (Beede et al., 2011; Bloodhart et al., 2020; Koch et al., 2022) will require school-based agricultural education (SBAE) to identify successful methods of integration that allow for the differentiation of instruction and are effective for a diverse audience. Scherer et al. (2019) stated, “[o]nce again, the education community has embraced a slogan without really taking the time to clarify what the term might mean when applied beyond a general label” (p. 28). To increase the clarity behind STEM integration into agricultural education, it is vital to understand the differences in confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators to integrate specific STEM-based AFNR standards into curriculum.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of this study was to assess the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators in [State A], [State B], and [State C] to integrate STEM into their curriculum. The following research objectives were assessed:

  1. Evaluate statistical differences in the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators to integrate STEM standards into the pathways of AFNR curriculum.
  • Determine the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators to integrate specific STEM-based standards into the pathways of AFNR curriculum.

Theoretical Framework

This study was guided by Becker’s (1993) human capital theory (HCT). The HCT is based on the acquisition of skills, knowledge, experiences, and education (Becker, 1964; Smith, 2010; Smylie, 1996). In education, human capital is most often increased through professional development, experience, and specialized training (Becker, 1993). As individuals increase their skills and abilities, their effectiveness within their profession should subsequently increase (Becker, 1964). An effective educator has been noted as the largest predictor of student achievement (Eck et al., 2019, 2020, 2021). In the context of this study, agricultural educators’ confidence in integrating STEM concepts into the AFNR curriculum is directly related to their human capital inputs within STEM. As agricultural educators are provided with relevant professional development, experience, and training within STEM integration, their abilities should increase; therefore, their confidence and effectiveness should also increase. While STEM integration into the AFNR curriculum has been prioritized for decades, the mixed results of agricultural education students’ achievement in STEM raises concerns about the human capital inputs offered to educators in this area. The interaction between agricultural educators and the HCT is depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Framework for Human Capital’s Effect on Agricultural Educator’s Ability to Integrate STEM

Note. Developed From Becker (1993).



This study utilized a descriptive correlational research design to assess the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators in [State A], [State B], and [State C] to integrate STEM into their curriculum. The demographics of the participants are detailed in Table 1.

Table 1

Demographics of Participating Agricultural Educators in [State A], [State B], and [State C].

Note. n = 68

Of the most notable demographic information collected, 56.2% of participating agricultural educators were male, and 43.8% were female. Approximately 87.5% were white, and 10.9% were African American. Additionally, 59.4% of participants had a master’s degree or higher, and 81.3% were traditionally certified. Furthermore, 53.1% of participants taught in a one-teacher program.


The instrument used in the study was delivered by Qualtrics to male and female agricultural educators, and it evaluated educators’ level of confidence to integrate specific STEM-based AFNR standards into agricultural education curriculum. The instrument was modified from Norris (2021). The statements regarding STEM were developed from the agriculture, food, and natural resources (AFNR) standards crosswalk produced by the National Council for Agricultural Education (2015). These AFNR standards were cross-walked with the Common Core Mathematics standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the STEM sections of the Green/Sustainability Knowledge and Skill Statements to identify the STEM-based AFNR standards. The standards included in the instrument are listed in Table 3 by pathway. The statements were abbreviated from their original form for reporting purposes, but an effort was made to maintain the original intent. The confidence levels of agricultural educators were assessed using a Likert-type scale that ranged from 1 = Not Confident at All, 2 = Somewhat Confident, 3 = Moderately Confident, 4 = Very Confident, and 5 = Extremely Confident.

The researchers chose not to conduct a pilot study because the reliability and validity of the instrument were assessed by Norris (2021) in a previous pilot study. To further assess the instrument for this specific population, the researchers formed a panel of two faculty at [University] to assess the instrument for content, construct, and face validity. In addition, instrument reliability was assessed post hoc utilizing a Cronbach’s alpha reliability test on each pathway. The reliability coefficients for each pathway in the instrument ranged from .90 to .99. According to Ary et al. (2010), a reliability coefficient greater than .9 is considered an acceptable level of reliability. These results suggest there are no issues with the reliability or validity of the instrument.

Data Collection

A list of agricultural educators and their email addresses was collected using resources from online agricultural educator directories. This produced a list of 99 viable emails in [State A], 185 viable emails in [State B], and 115 viable emails in [State C] (N = 399). These states were purposively selected due to their close geographical proximity to each other and their similarities in SBAE programming. According to Ramsey and Schafer (2012), a total of 30 responses are needed for quality descriptive research. In this study, a response rate of 17.04% (n = 68) was achieved.

To evaluate non-response bias, the researchers employed independent samples t-tests to compare the differences between early responders and late responders (Lindner, et al., 2001). Following the approach suggested by Dillman et al. (2014) to elicit responses, participants were sent an introductory email, followed by three reminder emails. Those who responded after the initial introductory email (n = 28) were classified as early respondents, while those who responded after the three reminder emails (n = 40) were categorized as late respondents. No statistical differences were found, suggesting there are no non-response bias issues.

Data Analysis

To appropriately apply parametric statistics for the analysis of Likert scale data, it is necessary to group five or more items together to create constructs (Johnson & Creech, 1983; Norman, 2010; Sullivan & Artino, 2013; Zumbo & Zimmerman, 1993). This grouping is essential as Likert scale data is considered ordinal in nature. In this study, the STEM-based AFNR standards were combined to form constructs between each pathway. To evaluate research objective one, independent samples t-tests were utilized to assess statistical differences between the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators to integrate STEM into the AFNR curriculum. In research objective two, central tendencies were utilized to further delineate the data and evaluate each individual STEM-based standard by the male and female agricultural educators’ confidence level to integrate each specific standard.


Due to the limited response rate (17.04%), the researchers caution against generalizing these results beyond the participating agricultural educators. Moreover, despite the instrument’s robustness, it is improbable that it comprehensively assessed every STEM-based AFNR concept integrated into agricultural education.


Research Objective One

Research objective one was assessed using independent samples t-tests on each AFNR pathway. The results of the independent samples t-test found statistically significant differences in the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators to integrate STEM-based AFNR standards into the Environmental Services Pathway t(66) = 2.57, p = .01, Food Products and Processing Pathway t(66) = 2.38, p = .02, Natural Resources Pathway t(66) = 2.23, p = .03, Plant Systems Pathway t(66) = 1.95, p =.05, and the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems Pathway t(66) = 7.13, p < .001. The Agribusiness Pathway t(66) = 1.89, p = .06, Animal Science Pathway t(66) = .24, p = .82, and the Biotechnology Pathway t(66) = .33, p = .74 all had statistically insignificant effects. According to Cohen (1988), Cohen’s d is interpreted as a small effect = .20, medium effect = 0.50, and a large effect = .80. The analysis suggested that the Environmental Services Pathway (Cohen’s d = .63), Food Products and Processing Pathway (Cohen’s d = .58), Natural Resources Pathway (Cohen’s d = .56), and the Plant Systems Pathway (Cohen’s d = .48) all had moderate effect sizes (Cohen, 1988). In addition, the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems Pathway (Cohen’s d = 1.74) had a large effect size (Cohen, 1988). The complete results of the t-tests are reported in Table 2.

Table 2

Results for the t-test Assessing STEM Integration Confidence of Male and Female Educators

Note. Α = .05. Cohen’s d is interpreted as a small effect = .20, medium effect = 0.50, and a large effect = .80. The Likert scale ranges from 1 = Not Confident at All, 2 = Somewhat Confident, 3 = Moderately Confident, 4 = Very Confident, and 5 = Extremely Confident.

Research Objective Two

Research objective two aimed to further delineate the data by evaluating differences in male and female agricultural educators’ confidence to implement each individual STEM-based AFNR standard. The results from research objective two are reported in Table 3.

    Table 3

Descriptive Statistics Describing the Individual STEM-based AFNR Standards by Sex

  Note. 1 = Not Confident at All, 2 = Somewhat Confident, 3 = Moderately Confident, 4 = Very Confident, and 5 = Extremely Confident

Within the Agribusiness Pathway, both male and female agricultural educators rated “Develop, assess and manage cash budgets to achieve AFNR business goals” (Male, M = 3.42, SD = 1.13; Female, M = 3.03, SD = .96) as the standard they were the most confident in implementing. Male and female agricultural educators both ranked “Demonstrate management techniques that ensure animal welfare” (Male, M = 3.89, SD = 1.18; Female, M = 3.87, SD = .97) the highest within the Animal Science Pathway. Within the Biotechnology Pathway, male and female participating agricultural educators both selected “Demonstrate management techniques that ensure animal welfare” (Male, M = 3.13, SD = 1.23; Female, M = 3.20, SD = 1.19) as the standard they were most confident in implementing. Within the Environmental Science Pathway, male agricultural educators ranked “Demonstrate management techniques that ensure animal welfare” (M = 3.45, SD = 1.01) as the standard they had the most confidence in implementing, but female agricultural educators ranked “Apply ecology principles to environmental service systems” as the highest standard (M = 3.24, SD = 1.15). The male and female agricultural educators both ranked “Implement selection, evaluation and inspection techniques to ensure safe and quality food products” (Male, M = 3.46, SD = 1.20; Female, M = 3.07, SD = 1.26) as the Food Products and Processing Pathway standard they had the most confidence in implementing. Within the Natural Resources Pathway, the male agricultural educators ranked “Classify different types of natural resources in order to enable protection, conservation, enhancement, and management in a particular geographical region” (M = 3.61, SD = 1.08) as the standard they felt the most confident in implementing, while female agricultural educators selected “Assess the impact of human activities on the availability of natural resources” (M = 3.13, SD = 1.14) as the standard they felt the most confidence in implementing. Male and female agricultural educators both selected “Apply knowledge of plant anatomy and the functions of plant structures to activities associated with plant systems” as the STEM-based standard in the Plant Systems Pathway they were the most confident in implementing. Within the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems Pathway, the male agricultural educators selected “Apply electrical wiring principles in AFNR structures” (M = 3.76, SD = 1.13) as the STEM-based standard they felt the most confident in integrating, while the female agricultural educators selected “Apply physical science and engineering principles to assess and select energy sources for AFNR power, structural and technical systems” (M = 2.10, SD = .96) as the standard they were the most confident in implementing.

Discussions, Conclusions, and Recommendations

Throughout agricultural education’s history, ensuring a prepared and competent workforce has been a major objective (Fristoe, 2017; Martinez, 2007). It is noted throughout the published literature that STEM skills are a critical component of a workplace (Scherer et al., 2019; Swafford, 2018). While STEM skills are vital to success, the industry currently claims that students exiting secondary education are not adequately prepared in the areas of STEM (McGunagle & Zizka, 2020). In addition, many studies suggest that women are choosing not to major in STEM (Beede et al., 2011; Bloodhart et al., 2020; Koch et al., 2022) and are not entering STEM-based career fields (Beede et al., 2011).

The first research objective assessed statistical differences between the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators to integrate STEM into the AFNR curriculum. Overall, statistical differences were found in five of the eight pathways including the Environmental Services, Food Products and Processing, Natural Resources, Plant Systems, and the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems pathways. This result was consistent with Smith et al. (2015), who found that female agricultural educators have less confidence in integrating engineering into agricultural education. This is particularly concerning for the agricultural education profession since the number of female agricultural educators has increased exponentially over the last 50+ years (Enns & Martin, 2015).

The second research objective further delineated the data by evaluating each STEM-based AFNR standard for differences in the confidence levels of male and female agricultural educators to integrate STEM. Overall, male participants selected the Plant Science, Animal Science, and Power, Structural, and Technical Systems pathways as the areas they were the most confident in integrating STEM. Inversely, the areas that male agricultural educators had the least amount of confidence in integrating STEM were the Biotechnology, Agribusiness, and Environmental Services pathways. Female agricultural educators reported being the most confident in integrating STEM into the Animal Science, Plant Systems, and Natural Resources pathways. Furthermore, female agricultural educators ranked the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems, Environmental Science, and Biotechnology pathways as the areas they felt least confident in implementing STEM. Overall, male and female agricultural educators ranked two of the same pathways as the highest and two of the same pathways the lowest. The most significant difference in this objective was the large variations in confidence within the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems pathway. This result is consistent with Yopp et al. (2020) who found statistically significant differences in the professional development needs of female and male agricultural educators within the Power, Structural, and Technical Systems pathway.

Based on the results of this study, the researchers recommend providing agricultural educators with targeted professional development on STEM integration. For example, professional development for female agricultural educators within the Power, Structural, and Technical pathway may be beneficial to increase their confidence in integrating STEM into the AFNR curriculum. This targeted and pertinent professional development will help increase the human capital input for agricultural educators (Becker, 1993).

Recommendations for future research include evaluating teacher preparation programs’ STEM integration training and assessing the current professional development options for agricultural educators. Additionally, Fernandez et al. (2020) found that there will be a continued demand for employees in AFNR jobs, but there is a lack of students trained specifically in STEM and AFNR fields at the postsecondary level. Furthermore, the pool of available college graduates trained in STEM and AFNR lacks diverse representation (Fernandez et al., 2020). To counter these findings, the researchers recommend assessing the confidence levels of agricultural educators who teach STEM in traditionally underserved populations. To improve the pipeline of future AFNR employees, it is important to measure these agricultural educators’ abilities and confidence levels to integrate STEM into agricultural education curriculum. By improving the exposure to and training of STEM and AFNR careers in secondary education, interest and involvement from underserved populations could increase at the postsecondary level for a diverse AFNR workforce (Burt & Johnson, 2018; Maltese et al., 2014; Maltese & Tai, 2010; Williams et al., 2016).


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Using Body Mapping to Assess Doctoral Students’ Preparedness to Serve as Science Communicators

Fally Masambuka-Kanchewa, Iowa State University,

Millicent A. Oyugi, Texas A and M University,

Alexa J. Lamm, University of Georgia,

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Land Grant Universities (LGUs) are pivotal in equipping the future agricultural workforce with the skills to effectively communicate agricultural and environmental science. This study utilized body mapping to assess graduate students’ readiness to become science communicators following a science communication theories course. Initially, doctoral students viewed communication merely as a tool, showing a need for more awareness about its significance in science. Deliberate efforts were exerted throughout the course to foster a classroom environment that empowered students as science communicators. By the end of the course, students had not only grasped the difference between ‘communication’ and ‘communications’ but also expressed a keen interest in tackling science communication-related issues. The evolution of communication technologies significantly influences public access to scientific information and the acceptance of science and related policies. Challenges such as these, augmented by urgent concerns like climate change and the Coronavirus pandemic, underscore the need for agricultural and environmental science graduates adept at communicating science upon entering the workforce. However, achieving this level of preparedness requires not only the provision of relevant courses but also innovative assessment methods that foster metacognitive and soft skills, thereby facilitating social, academic, and political empowerment.


Communication is a complex process that involves the exchange of meanings, information, and messages among individuals, whereas communications refer to the array of tools and technologies to facilitate this exchange (Alder et al., 2016). In most cases there is increased focus on communications as opposed to communication. Such perceptions stem from the deficit model of communication which emphasizes the need for increased dissemination about scientific issues to shift public opinion towards a scientific consensus (Hart & Nisbet, 2012, p. 701). The deficit model primarily sees science communication as a tool for educating the public about scientific topics, often overlooking the essential element of encouraging dialogue (Trench & Miller, 2012). The rapid evolution of communication technologies and the rise of social media platforms have led to a significant increase in the spread of information (Masambuka et al., 2018).

Although science communication aims to educate and inform, it should equally promote open and meaningful interactions between scientists, experts, and the public. The emergence of agricultural communication as a distinct branch of communication is evidence of the need to share practical agricultural and domestic innovations with rural communities (Tucker et al., 2003). Over time, agricultural communication has seen considerable changes (Cannon et al., 2016). The focus has shifted from traditional print and broadcast news to science journalism and now includes communications related to advocacy and public relations, moving beyond mere technology transfer (Bonnen, 1986; Irani & Doerfert, 2013). In the United States, despite these changes, programs in this field are still widely known as agricultural communications programs (Akers & Akers, 2000; Cannon et al., 2016; Doerfert & Miller, 2006; Kurtzo et al., 2016; Miller et al., 2015; Telg & Irani, 2011; Tucker et al., 2003). These programs mainly focus on equipping students with technical communication skills, such as writing and graphic design, at the undergraduate level (Cannon et al., 2016).

The emerging challenges of the 21st Century, including the Coronavirus pandemic and the expanding array of information sources, underscore the necessity for educational courses to approach communication as a scientific discipline, not merely as a tool for public education. To adapt to these swiftly changing conditions, it is imperative that postsecondary and agricultural communication programs sufficiently prepare graduates for the evolving job market (Doerfert & Miller, 2006). This perspective is supported by the notion that higher education, particularly at land-grant universities (LGUs), should not only facilitate students’ ability to connect academic knowledge with the practical world but also foster critical thinking about the influence of existing societal structures (Roth & Desaultels, 2002; Schultz, 2008). Active learning and project-based activities are recommended as effective strategies to develop essential 21st-century skills (Gavazi, 2020). However, it is crucial to distinguish that increasing student engagement in the educational process does not automatically equate to empowerment, a concept that often needs to be understood (Dimick, 2012).

The body mapping technique is a valuable method for enhancing educational experiences. It explores individuals’ perceptions of control and power within specific contexts (Martinez, 2017), making participants more conscious of their embodied experiences and uncovering otherwise inaccessible insights (de-Jager, 2016). As a qualitative research tool, body mapping facilitates the collection of personal stories, offering insights into individuals’ identities (Coetzee et al., 2017) and providing scientists with a novel, visually and sensory-rich research methodology (Ball & Gilligan, 2010). Thus, body mapping is an effective way for students to evaluate their learning, expanding assessment perspectives beyond the teacher’s perspective to include the students’ viewpoints.

Traditional course content selection and assessment methods have been criticized for their top-down approach, as they tend to overlook student perspectives in the educational process. Huba and Freed (2000) highlight that instructors typically maintain complete control over educational content, limiting student input opportunities. Recent scholarly debates advocate for outcome-driven learning, emphasizing the enhancement of metacognitive and soft skills, such as communication, now sought after by employers for well-rounded graduates (Mitsea et al., 2021). These skills are vital for engaging in various domains, including personal, academic, and professional arenas (Mitsea et al., 2021).

While research activities at LGUs are crucial for addressing societal issues, concerns arise that de-emphasizing teaching and community engagement may affect the quality of education and reduce graduates’ employability (Gavazi, 2020). A notable concern is the need for more preparation of graduates for science communication careers, despite LGUs’ focus on training in this area. Incorporating student-led assessments, such as body mapping, has been scientifically validated to bridge this gap. This approach respects teacher authority while empowering students to evaluate their learning experiences (Biesta et al., 2015). As Fielding (1996) described, empowerment involves transferring some authority from those in power to those with less. Granting students, the agency to evaluate their learning can significantly enhance their knowledge and self-efficacy in communicating scientific or agricultural innovations in response to market demands (see Bandura, 1997). According to Bandura (1997), self-efficacy is a powerful motivator for action, fostering a sense of conviction and confidence in individuals’ abilities to complete assigned tasks.

In summary, body mapping in science communication teaching enriches the learning assessment spectrum, enhancing the quality of education by incorporating student perspectives. Research indicates that active learning strategies can significantly improve critical thinking, self-efficacy, and preparedness for science communication careers, equipping graduates to navigate complex challenges (Clem, 2013).

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of this study was to use a body mapping strategy to assess graduate students’ perceived level of preparedness to serve as science communicators after taking an agricultural communications theories class.

The study used two research objectives to address the purpose:

  1. To describe participants’ visualization of their knowledge and experiences of science communication before and after taking an agricultural communications theory class.
  2. To describe participants’ science communication knowledge and experience before and after taking the class.


The study utilized a qualitative research approach to collect data through mapping data. “Body mapping draws from the tenet that ‘mind influences the body based on how socio-cultural context influences the mind,’ and acknowledges that by identifying how and where perception is experienced in the body, one can collect information beyond what traditional face-to-face interviewing offers” (Martinez, 2017, p. 2). This methodology effectively captures participants’ perspectives (Coetzee et al., 2017). In this study, participants used body mapping to articulate their understanding and interpretation of a communications theory class (Duby et al., 2016).

The research focused on first-year doctoral students enrolled in an agricultural communication theory class at the University of Georgia’s Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication. The study used purposive sampling to recruit participants, seven students (three males and four females) were involved in the study. All participants were doctoral candidates in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication, with two students majoring in agricultural communication, two in agricultural leadership, and three in agricultural education. However, three students also served as agricultural extension educators during the time that they enrolled in the course.

Course Content and Administration

The course was delivered synchronously in Fall of 2020, both in-person and online via Zoom. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students opted to take the class online or in person. Three students attended in-person, while the rest did so online. To curb the spread of the virus, the university further mandated all classes to go online after the Thanksgiving holiday. As a result, the remainder of the course occurred online.

The course material covered communication theory, agricultural communication history, crisis, and risk communication, the importance of agricultural and science communication, and current issues in agriculture and science communication concerning communication theories. The class design was to be a discussion-based setting. During the first few days of class, the instructor requested students to participate in the discussions about the readings using shared reflection papers. Students were to critically analyze each class’s readings and present summaries to the rest of the class to help guide the discussions. However, during the first three weeks of class, students expressed their concerns via an anonymous questionnaire distributed as part of the feedback collection process. The student expressed difficulty understanding the material because most of them had never taken a communication theory course before, and they requested additional lectures. The instructor incorporated lectures into each class in response to students’ needs. In addition to lectures, students utilized case studies and mind maps to increase their engagement.

Data Collection

Data collection occurred during the last week of class. The instructor first requested participants to draw two body maps in response to prompts. Participants started by drawing a body map that represented their knowledge level about science communication, awareness of science communication issues and challenges, and their role as communicators before taking the class. On the second body map, they drew body maps based on the previous prompts with an additional prompt on preparedness to serve as a science communicator after taking the class. Participants also indicated notes on the body maps based on the prompts. Since the class was online, the students could use any technology of their choice to draw the body maps and submit them to the instructor. Since the topic for this study was not sensitive, body mapping activity ensured participants could express themselves freely without following a standard template. Participants were entirely in control of drawing their images based on their understanding.

Data Analysis

A content analysis of the body maps and their associated descriptions was conducted. In addition, content analysis of participants’ reflections and researchers’ observation notes made it possible to clearly describe the participants’ stories (Gastaldo et al., 2018) and triangulate the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Due to the absence of a standardized data coding and analysis tool for body maps, the researcher used a modified evaluation tool based on the indicators of a standard scientist (see Chambers, 1983). Codes were developed based on body map structure (size, shape, and colors). In addition, codes for all the descriptions of the body maps were developed, which included types of description and issues addressed in line with the prompts, namely: awareness of challenges and issues in science communication, role as a communicator, knowledge, and skills in science communication and knowledge of communication theories. Each researcher coded the data independently based on the codebook.

Once coding was completed, images corresponding to each code were grouped and themes were developed by comparing each code with the descriptions that were provided by the participants’ reflection papers. The content analysis of the notes and reflection papers assisted in further triangulation and ensured the trustworthiness of the results (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Mikhaeil & Baskerville, 2019).

Subjectivity Statement

A postdoctoral research associate whose research primarily focuses on the use of communication as a science for amplifying voices of marginalized and vulnerable groups served as the lead course instructor. She provided academic oversight and infused the curriculum with innovative pedagogical strategies. These strategies included the introduction of mind and body mapping exercises alongside creating tailored prompts to facilitate these activities. Her approach was underpinned by a conscientious effort to mitigate the influence of her research bias, especially regarding identifying potential gaps in science communication and their implications for data analysis and the literature review. To this end, she undertook a thorough literature review to ensure that the development and application of coding schemes were aligned with established research paradigms.

The team also included a professor specializing in science communication. She shared the instructional responsibilities, bringing to the course a firm belief in the scientific nature of communication and the necessity of grounding scientific inquiry in solid theoretical foundations. Her contributions were instrumental in shaping the course content, and she was the architect behind a pivotal learning activity that generated the images and texts serving as the primary data for the study. Conscious of her bias towards emphasizing the need for improved communication within agricultural and environmental science, she opted out of the initial stages of data coding to safeguard the research’s objectivity.

A third key figure was another postdoctoral research associate, who brought a wealth of experience in agricultural education and communication. Her expertise is valuable in articulating and disseminating impactful messages tailored to meet clientele’s needs. This bias towards client-centric messaging was intertwined with her dedication to fostering innovative teaching and learning methodologies within agricultural communication curricula. Her overarching goal was to arm prospective agricultural communicators with a blend of theoretical understanding and 21st-century skills essential for navigating the multifaceted challenges of modern agriculture. She recused herself from the coding process to preclude and, thus, any biases that could skew the study’s findings.

These diverse perspectives and methodological rigor enhanced the research process, ensuring a credible approach to evaluating the effectiveness of the science communication course in improving the career readiness of the study participants as future agricultural communicators.

Results and Discussion

Participants’ Visualization of their Knowledge and Experiences Regarding Science Communication Before and After the Class

When the students drew body maps presenting their science communication experiences and knowledge in science communication, one theme emerged: Body maps not restricted to human bodies. Six participants represented their knowledge and experiences using the actual human body, while one participant drew an animal to represent his/her knowledge and experiences (See Figure 1).

Figure 1 depicts bodymaps presentation before and after taking the class. A subtheme, namely: variation in body map presentation, emerged when analyzing the images of the participants’ presentation of the body maps regardless of whether human or animal. Changes were observed in the colors, size, and features provided between and among participants to reflect the changes before and after taking the class. Different parts of the human were also presented, with four of the students presenting an entire human body form (Figures 1. 2, 1.3, 1.4 and 1.6) while one person presented the head (Figure 1.7 a and b) and another presented the face only (1.5 a and b). In addition, variations in the use of colors were also observed. For example, while the color green represented a positive change in knowledge (Figure 1.4) the same color was used to represent awareness of science communication (Figure 1.3 a and b).

Figure 1

Body Maps Presentation Before and After Taking the Class

Participants’ Opinions Regarding their Knowledge and Experiences Regarding Science Communication Before and After the Class

Almost all participants had limited knowledge and experience in agricultural communication. Two themes emerged: the nature of agricultural communication and knowledge of agricultural communication and theories.

Nature of Agricultural Communication

The participants understood communication as delivering agricultural information using different communication channels. As an illustration, one of the participants stated, “My previous thinking was that Agcom was about writing articles about important events.” The nature of agricultural communication was evidenced in the body maps of two other participants (see Figure 1.7a and 1.7b). The content analysis of the reflection papers also indicated frequent use of the word communications as opposed to communication among all participants.

Knowledge of Agricultural Communication and Associated Theories

Participants indicated they had limited knowledge of agricultural communication and associated theories, as evidenced by the following quotes. “I had no formal knowledge of communication theories.” This was echoed by another quote, “My knowledge as a science communicator was very lacking…with no formal knowledge or background. I was unaware of any possible theories.” Another participant also raised similar sentiments as evidenced by the following quote: “Mediocre level of knowledge- struggled with specifics of communication.” To emphasize the point, the participant explained how the knowledge level was represented in the body map (see Figure 1.4a and b). In addition, another participant also provided a key that explained the colors on the body map, with yellow representing knowledge of communication theories (see Figures 1.4a and 1.4b).

Apart from these sentiments, the participants provided feedback to the instructor to change the administration focus of the class from student discussion of the content to more lectures. The lectures were proposed to ensure the students were taught about agricultural communication and associated communication theories due to limited knowledge.

Awareness of communication challenges and issues

Almost all the participants indicated having limited knowledge of the challenges and issues in agricultural communication, as evidenced by one participant who said, “I was not aware of challenges/issues in science communication.” Another participant stated that “I was not super aware of the many issues and challenges that are present.” Such sentiments were also vivid in the body map by one of the participants who presented a key where the green color implied awareness of challenges and issues in science communication (see Figure 1.3a and b).

The participants also provided opinions regarding their knowledge and experience in science communication, and the students reported an increase in knowledge of agricultural or science communication. Two themes emerged, namely: type of change and impact of change.

Type of Change

Three sub-themes emerged regarding the type of changes reported by participants: knowledge and skills about science communication and communication, perceptions about science communication, and role as a science communicator.

Knowledge and skills in science communication and communication

Most of the students’ body maps depicted a general increase in knowledge and skills in communication theories and their applications. (see Figures 1.4a and 1.4b; 1.2a and 1.2b as well as 1.1a and 1.1b). However, one participant reported the changes in knowledge and skills in general. They used different colors to represent each change and provided a key for each color where orange = knowledge of communication theories; Pink = assumptions about science; Purple = knowledge and skills in science communication; Blue = role as a science communicator, and green awareness of challenges (Figures 1.3a and 1.3b).

Perceptions about communication

Participants generally indicated developing an understanding of communication as illustrated in the following quote “communication is a HUGE world. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, but I am able to understand and apply the theories.” Another participant affirmed prior sentiments saying that, “… communication is an ever-changing and challenging field due to changes in technologies and the world faces more issues.” Content analysis of the reflection papers and observation notes also indicated that all the students appreciated the complexity of communication during the class. This was evidenced by a statement made by one of the participants during class which implied that communication is often considered an easy task, however, it is more complicated than it appears. In addition, another participant’s reflection indicated a change of perspective regarding the role of science communication from a one-way communication model to a two-way communication model (figure 1.7a and 1.7b).

Preparedness to serve as a science communicator.

Participants’ statements indicated they felt empowered and more confident to serve as science communicators after taking the class. One participant said, “I feel more prepared to perform as a science communicator although there are still some things I may be lacking.” Another stated, “I feel more prepared to continue my program after taking this course and to work as a science communicator. I feel confident in my ability to address science communication.” Another participant added, “After class, I am confident in carrying conversations about communication methods and purposes. I am also familiar with theories, channels, organizational strategies, and much more.”

Conclusion/ Implications/ Recommendations

The qualitative nature of this study limits generalization to a broader audience but vails an opportunity for replication with a broader sample of students or across diverse contexts. The data revealed a discernible trend: Students exhibited an enhanced readiness to take on roles as science communicators post-course completion. Intriguingly, the results unveiled a transformative shift in perception—a transition from viewing communication merely as a tool to a broader understanding of it as communications. This transformation of outlook resonates with the narrative woven by the proliferation of agricultural communication programs across the United States (Akers & Akers, 2000; Cannon et al., 2016; Doerfert & Miller, 2006; Kurtzo et al., 2016; Miller et al., 2015; Telg & Irani, 2011; Tucker et al., 2003), suggesting a reevaluation of the subject matter itself. This raises the question: Is it opportune to reshape the teaching and evaluation of agricultural communication, pivoting it from a mere tool to an assimilation of scientific principles?

A resonant implication surfaces—educators are encouraged to embrace participatory methodologies, as the study’s findings underscored. Concepts like concept mapping have previously revealed students’ grasp of core ideas and their interconnections (Akinsanya & Williams, 2004). In parallel, body mapping stands out as a dynamic tool for assessing learning and as a catalyst for learning itself. The study underscores the necessity to shift from a predominant focus on technical communication within agricultural communication programs, particularly at the graduate level (Bray et al., 2012), urging for a broader scope of scientific awareness.

The spotlight extends to the gap in research concerning the effectiveness of graduate-level agricultural communication courses, a void highlighted by this study amidst the predominantly undergraduate program evaluations (Cannon et al., 2014; Clem, 2013; Corder & Irlbeck, 2018; Morgan, 2010). In a rapidly evolving landscape shaped by ICT advancements and the emergence of phenomena like the Coronavirus pandemic, the necessity for comprehensive science communication training transcends mere technical prowess. Nevertheless, the authors recognize that content inclusion alone falls short; the core lies in fostering empowering classroom environments that encompass social, political, and academic dimensions. Empowerment, as a focal point, necessitates instructors to go beyond mere participation assessments, steering students toward multifaceted opportunities for self-directed learning (Dimick, 2012).

Evident in the results is the profound empowerment students experienced—socially, politically, and academically. For instance, instructors introduced early autonomy, granting students the choice of in-person or online attendance, thereby inducing a sense of political empowerment (Dimick, 2012; Oyler & Becker, 1997; Schultz, 2008). This empowerment further materialized through the students’ willingness to confront science communication challenges—a testament to Breiting’s (2009) findings on political empowerment manifesting through a desire to address societal issues. Simultaneously, hints of social empowerment surfaced through students’ input into content delivery (Dimick, 2012). Academically, some students proactively addressed potential hindrances to implementing science communication interventions, revealing their empowerment (Roth & Desaultels, 2002; Schultz, 2008). Students’ readiness was not a mere byproduct of course content; instead, it emanated from the power and control they experienced throughout the learning journey.

The findings offer insights into how instructors can cultivate a classroom atmosphere that empowers students, fostering their confidence in applying their knowledge and skills to real-world challenges. Moreover, the research introduces an innovative dimension by pioneering the utilization of body mapping as a tool for capturing sensory experiences. These outcomes align with earlier research (Ball & Gilligan, 2010; Jager et al., 2016), underscoring the significance of visual data collection tools in capturing intricate perceptions that are otherwise elusive. For instance, participants demonstrated shifts in their understanding and abilities by manipulating the forms, colors, and dimensions within their body maps. Remarkably, these body maps unveiled emotions and insights that conventional research methods could not uncover, offering a fresh layer of depth to our understanding. Diversities in the types, styles, and hues employed in these body maps also furnished invaluable insights into how perceptions of different individuals are shaped.

In contrast to studies where participants adhered to pre-designed body map templates (Duby et al., 2016; Naidoo et al., 2020), the present study encouraged participants to sketch body maps based on their comprehension, granting them the autonomy to express their perspectives candidly. While body maps are frequently employed in health inquiries, a lack of standardized evaluation criteria exists, thus highlighting the need for further research to establish consistent methodologies for image analysis. This calls for cross-sectional studies that utilize body mapping to gauge students’ preparedness as science communicators at the commencement and culmination of their graduate journeys. The inherent potential of body mapping in empowering participants to voice their perceptions positions it as a promising technique for probing into students’ grasp of knowledge and the broader public’s perception of science communication. This genre of research aids in identifying gaps, ensuring that communication institutions equip graduates to disseminate scientific knowledge to the masses effectively. Interestingly, the findings also revealed disparities in individuals’ visual representations of their body maps. This prompts a suggestion for future researchers to incorporate interview questions that prompt participants to elaborate on the rationale behind their chosen images, forms, sizes, and hues.  


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Priorities of School Superintendents for Hiring and Supervising School-Based Agricultural Education Teachers in Oklahoma

Christopher J. Eck, Oklahoma State University,

Nathan A. Smith, Oklahoma State University,

PDF Available


The hiring and supervision of teachers is a critical role within K-12 schools. Within school-based agricultural education (SBAE), administrators play a key role in the decision-making process, as they often have a stake in the approval of travel and funding essential for complete program success. Therefore, it is essential to consider the priorities of administrators when hiring and supervising SBAE teachers, because trained or not, these administrators are making impactful decisions ultimately affecting student achievement. This study was undergirded by the reciprocal effects model and aimed to determine the priorities of school superintendents related to hiring and supervising SBAE teachers in Oklahoma. This non-experimental, descriptive exploratory research study resulted in a 52.4% response rate. Superintendents are not concerned with the gender of SBAE teacher candidates but deem it important for potential candidates to hold a current Oklahoma agricultural education teaching credential. Regarding the evaluation and assessment of SBAE teachers, it was concluded superintendents still place the greatest value on classroom instruction when evaluating SBAE teachers, but also identify their performance outside the classroom as important to the evaluation process. Interestingly, superintendents did not see value in an SBAE teachers’ ability to connect STEM concepts or core content areas within agricultural education curriculum. Areas of engagement at the local and state level were viewed more favorably than those on the national scale. It is recommended for SBAE teacher preparation faculty to continue developing positive relationships with school superintendents. Further exploration into superintendents’ attitudes toward SBAE teacher candidates who hold additional credentials or industry certifications should be conducted.


Effective teachers are the most critical predictor of student success, regardless of the discipline area (Eck et al., 2020; Stronge et al., 2011). Therefore, the hiring and supervision of teachers is a critical role within K-12 schools. Hiring a teacher is a multi-step, time-consuming process that includes screening materials to identify potential candidates, checking references, interviewing candidates, and making the hiring decision (Peterson, 2002). Similarly, teacher supervision is multi-faceted, including evaluating teachers, allocating resources, and developing essential skills (Sergiovanni & Starrat, 2002). Regardless of which of these pivotal tasks you deem more important in the broader scope of teacher success and retention, both tasks fall on the shoulders of administrators.

Within school-based agricultural education (SBAE), administrators play a key role in the decision-making process, as they often have a stake in the approval of travel and funding essential for complete program success (Talbert et al., 2007). Therefore, the relationship between an administrator and the teacher is a fundamental need and often begins during the hiring process, as the recommendation for employment of a teacher is a critical component (Sulaver, 2008). Within school administration, principals are often in the paramount position when it comes to these decisions (Hallinger, 1992). Uniquely in Oklahoma, the hiring of SBAE teachers and head coaches (i.e., football, baseball, basketball, etc.) often falls within the scope of a school superintendent’s duties (Personal Communication, 2022).

Regionally, the demand for SBAE teachers continues to increase, as nearly a 5% increase in SBAE programs has occurred over the last four years, adding an additional 262 SBAE teachers to the region (Foster et al., 2021). Similar trends have been seen in Oklahoma, while the number of certified teachers at Oklahoma State University has remained consistent (Foster et al., 2021). As new programs are added, teachers leave the profession, retire, or move schools, superintendents in Oklahoma are regularly having to hire SBAE teachers. Additionally, administrators have been identified as a pivotal component in the retention of career and technical education (CTE) teachers (Self, 2001).

Specifically, it is essential for administrators to recognize and support new teachers, even more so in CTE disciplines (Self, 2001) such as SBAE. Perhaps part of the issue leading to the increased attrition we see within SBAE can be linked back to the priorities of administrators as they hire, supervise, and support SBAE teachers. Zirkle and Jeffery (2017) identified a potential concern with the streamlined credentialling systems for administrators (i.e., assistant principals, principals, superintendents, and CTE directors), as many of them do not have direct experience with CTE programs. This becomes a growing concern considering the differing needs related to content delivery, program funding, industry credentials, travel, and other decision making for CTE programs as compared to traditional school content areas (Zirkle & Jeffery, 2017).

Considering the uniqueness of a comprehensive SBAE program (i.e., classroom/laboratory instruction, FFA advisement, and supervised agricultural experiences [SAE]), it is essential to consider the priorities of administrators when hiring and supervising SBAE teachers, because trained or not, these administrators are making impactful decisions ultimately affecting student achievement (Clark & Cole, 2015).

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

This study was undergirded by Pitner’s (1988) reciprocal effects model. The model suggests that an administrator has an indirect effect on student achievement through intervening variables (Pitner, 1988). The administrator can serve as a dependent variable through the impact the students, teachers, and school culture have on them as an individual. On the other side, the administrator can be the independent variable, influencing the students, teachers, and school culture (Leithwood et al., 1990). Teacher commitment, instructional practices, and school culture can further compound these intervening variables, furthering the impact on student achievement (Leithwood & Montgomery, 1982). Specifically, within SBAE, Doss and Rayfield (2021) depicted a model (see Figure 1) connecting Pitner’s (1988) framework with the work of Leithwood and Montgomery (1982) specifically related to the indirect and direct impacts principals’ perceptions of a complete SBAE program have on student achievement.  

Figure 1

Direct and Indirect Secondary School Principal Perception Effects on Student Achievement

Note. From “The Importance of FFA and SAE Activities: A Comparison of Texas Principals’ and Teachers’ Perceptions,” by W. Doss and J. Rayfield, 202, Journal of Agricultural Education, 62(4), 125–138.

Within the context of this study and the nature of the hiring and supervision process of SBAE teachers in Oklahoma, school superintendents also have direct and indirect effects on student achievement. These effects begin with the priorities associated with hiring an SBAE teacher and then continue to develop through the implemented evaluation processes. Additionally, the key variables (i.e., teacher commitment, instructional practices, school culture, and other intervening variables; see Figure 1) are positioned to be impacted by the superintendent’s priorities for the SBAE program. For example, if a school has a culture of livestock exhibition and judging, and this culture aligns with the superintendent’s priorities, then perhaps a teacher that is committed to livestock is hired and their instructional practice aligns with such, ultimately impacting student achievement within and beyond livestock.

Purpose and Research Objectives

This study aimed to determine the priorities of school superintendents related to hiring and supervising SBAE teachers in Oklahoma. Three research objectives guided this study:

  1. Explain the priorities of school superintendents hiring SBAE teachers in Oklahoma,
  2. Determine the evaluation methods used by school superintendents for supervising SBAE teachers in Oklahoma, and
  3. Rank the priorities of school superintendents related to SBAE programs.  

Methods and Procedures

This non-experimental descriptive, exploratory research study aimed to reach school superintendents across Oklahoma who had one or more SBAE teachers in their district (N = 367). To reach the target population, an existing email frame was utilized, of which 14 emails bounced back undeliverable, adjusting the accessible population to 353. An initial email requesting participation was sent followed by four reminder emails following the recommendations of Dillman et al. (2014) to maximize response rate. In all, 185 complete survey questionnaire responses were returned, resulting in a 52.4% response rate.

The survey questionnaire implemented in this study was researcher developed and included four overarching sections. The first section aimed to determine the hiring priorities of superintendents in Oklahoma by asking them to rank a list of 13-items developed through a review of literature. The second section requested participants to rate four items on a five-point scale of agreement (i.e., 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree) related to the evaluation strategies used for SBAE teachers as compared to core subject teachers. The third section had participants indicate their level of consideration given to classroom instruction, SAE supervision, FFA responsibilities, community/stakeholder involvement, and STEM integration/core content alignment. The final section prompted superintendents to rank 14-items related to complete SBAE program perceptions on a five-point scale of agreement (i.e., 1 = unimportant and 5 = important). In addition to the four overarching survey questionnaire sections, superintendents were asked six questions related to their personal and professional characteristics (i.e., age, gender, years as superintendent, school district size, number of SBAE teachers in district, and number of SBAE teachers hired as superintendent). Table 1 outlines the personal and professional characteristics of the participating superintendents.

Table 1

Oklahoma Superintendents Personal and Professional Characteristics (n = 185)

Characteristic f%
Age36 to 4063.2
 41 to 4594.9
 46 to 502513.5
 51 to 553921.1
 56 to 603116.8
 61 to 65147.6
 66 to 7031.6
 71 or older31.6
 Prefer to not respond5529.7
 Prefer to not respond5529.7
Years Serving asFirst Year42.2
     Superintendent2 to 54725.4
 6 to 105027.0
 11 to 153217.3
 16 to 2094.9
 21 to 2552.7
 26 to 3084.3
 Prefer to not respond3016.2
School District SizeC84.3
 Prefer to not respond3016.2
Number of SBAE110355.7
     Teachers in District24021.6
 Prefer to not respond3016.2
Number of SBAE Teachers   
     Hired as Superintendent03418.4
 5 or more126.5
 Prefer to not respond3016.2

Descriptive statistics were analyzed using SPSS Version 28. Specifically, the first research objective was analyzed using median and mode to establish a rank order of hiring priorities of superintendents with SBAE programs. The second research objective evaluated means and standard deviations of SBAE teaching evaluation practices. Additionally, mean score and percent agreement were analyzed for the sliding scale (i.e., 0 to 100) related to considerations given to the complete SBAE program (i.e., classroom/laboratory instruction, FFA, and SAE) during evaluations. Analysis for the final research objective established mean and standard deviation scores for 14-items associated with superintendent priorities within an SBAE program on a five-point scale of agreement (i.e., 1 = unimportant and 5 = important).

Although this study resulted in a 52.4% response rate, non-response error was still of concern, as the research team aimed to generalize to the population of superintendents in Oklahoma with SBAE programs (Fraenkel et al., 2019). Therefore, the research team compared early to late responses based off the recommendation of Lindner et al. (2001). Respondents were classified by responsive waves, specifically 140 participants were deemed early respondents, while the remaining 45 were late respondents (i.e., responded after the final reminder). The personal and professional characteristics of early and late respondents were compared, resulting in no differences. Additionally, the percentage of respondents were compared to Oklahoma data related to school district size (i.e., C to 6A) and number of SBAE programs per district. The resulting comparisons were found comparative, further demonstrating the participants in this study as a representative sample of superintendents with SBAE programs in Oklahoma.


Research Objective 1: Explain the Priorities of School Superintendents Hiring SBAE Teachers in Oklahoma

To explain Oklahoma superintendent priorities when hiring SBAE teachers, participants were asked to rank 13 items from the greatest priority (1) to the least (13). The top priority was teachers holding a Oklahoma agricultural education teaching credential, while gender (i.e., male or female) was not considered a priority, as is male and is female both received the same median, resulting in a tie, with a rank of 12 and 13 (see Table 2). Rounding out the top five were graduated from an agricultural education teacher preparation program, professionalism, has previous teaching experience, and has agricultural industry experience.

Table 2

Ranked Priorities of Oklahoma Superintendents when Hiring School-Based Agricultural Education Teachers (n = 185)

Hiring PriorityRankMedianMode
Holds an Oklahoma Agricultural Education Teaching Credential11.01
Graduated from an Agricultural Education teacher preparation program22.02
Has previous teaching experience44.03
Has agricultural industry experience55.04
Has livestock experience66.05
Ability to integrate STEM/core content alignment78.09
Has additional credentials (i.e., Certified to teach CASE curriculum or similar)89.09
Holds an advanced degree (i.e., Masters or Doctoral degree)99.010
Is from Oklahoma109.011
Undergraduate GPA1110.010
Is male1212.012
Is female1312.013

Note. Median, and mode were used to develop the rank order.

Research Objective 2: Determine the Evaluation Methods Used by School Superintendents for Supervising SBAE Teachers in Oklahoma

The second research objective had two related questions to determine the strategies and considerations used when supervising SBAE teachers. The first question elicited superintendents’ evaluation strategies for SBAE teachers as compared to core subject educators on a five-point scale of agreement. Over 90% of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the need to evaluate SBAE teachers outside the classroom, even though classroom instruction was considered important (M = 3.91) for evaluating all teachers. Participating superintendents seemed to have differing views on consistent evaluation across teachers, as I evaluate all teachers the same resulted in a mean of 3.38, with 26% disagree or strongly disagree and 50% agreeing or strongly agreeing, while the remaining 24% neither agreed nor disagreed. Table 3 provides means and standard deviations for each of the four-items related to evaluation strategies of SBAE teachers.

Table 3

Oklahoma Superintendents Evaluation Strategies for School-Based Agricultural Education Teachers (n = 185)

Item DescriptionMSD
Observation outside classroom helps in agricultural education
     teacher evaluation
Classroom instruction is key in evaluating all teachers3.91.90
Agricultural education teachers require different evaluation
I evaluate all teachers the same3.381.06

Note. Five-point scale of agreement, 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree.

Additionally, Oklahoma superintendents were asked how much consideration is given to classroom instruction, SAE supervision, FFA responsibilities, community/stakeholder involvement, and STEM integration/core content alignment when evaluating SBAE teachers using a sliding scale from 0 to 100 for each item. The greatest consideration was reported to be given to classroom instruction, with a mean of 67.0 out of 100, with 63% of respondents indicating 70 or higher. FFA responsibilities resulted in a mean of 64.0, while SAE supervision received a 62.3. A mean of 59.6 was determined for community/stakeholder engagement and STEM integration/core content alignment was deemed to be least impactful when evaluating SBAE teachers with a mean of 42.0.

Research Objective 3: Rank the Priorities of School Superintendents Related to SBAE Programs

To address the final research objective, superintendents were asked to rank 14-items on a five-point scale of agreement (i.e., 1 = unimportant and 5 = important). Seven of the 14 items (see Table 4) were deemed to be of some importance (i.e., somewhat important or important) where engagement was deemed most important by participating superintendents, as community engagement (M = 4.78) and local FFA meetings (M = 4.68) received the highest perceived value. The remaining seven items resulted in mean scores between 3.71 and 3.96, indicating neither an important nor unimportant perception. Additionally, state FFA convention (M = 4.60) was deemed more important than national FFA convention (M = 3.72).

Table 4

Oklahoma Superintendents Perceived Importance of School-Based Agricultural Education Programs (n = 185)

Item DescriptionMSD
Community Engagement4.78.43
Local FFA Meeting4.68.53
State FFA Convention4.60.72
Having an FFA Banquet4.52.76
Promoting FFA Events/Success on social media4.47.68
Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) Participation4.22.71
Career Development Event (CDE) Participation4.06.76
Leadership Development Event (LDE) Participation3.96.81
Industry Certifications3.90.83
Agriscience Fair Participation3.86.82
Competing in National Chapter Award Competitions3.78.85
STEM Integration3.75.85
National FFA Convention3.72.93
Competing for State FFA Officer Positions3.71.94

Note. Five-point scale of agreement, 1 = unimportant, 2 = somewhat unimportant, 3 = no opinion, 4 = somewhat important, and 5 = important.

Conclusions, Discussion, and Recommendations

Through synthesis of the findings from research objective one, it was concluded that superintendents are not concerned with the gender of SBAE teacher candidates but deem it important for potential candidates to hold a current Oklahoma agricultural education teaching credential. With the ever-shifting landscape of teacher certification requirements in Oklahoma, it is encouraging to see school superintendents still place value in the traditional teacher certification pathway. Couple this with their preference to hire graduates from a traditional agricultural education teacher preparation program, important implications can be formulated by SBAE teacher preparation faculty in Oklahoma as the demand for certified SBAE teachers continues to rise (Foster et al., 2021). How can SBAE teacher preparation programs in Oklahoma better recruit and retain both high school and undergraduate students to the agricultural education major and see them through to graduation, certification, and job placement? More importantly, how can SBAE teacher preparation faculty better advocate and educate Oklahoma lawmakers about the importance of the traditional certification route and work towards eliminating barriers to certification while maintaining the rigor and integrity of the process? This becomes increasingly important in Oklahoma, as the number of SBAE teachers grew to a record high for the start of the 2023 to 2024 school year, yet 43% of new hires did not hold a state teaching credential (i.e., emergency certified or on track to alternative certification) at the start of the school year (Personal Communication, August 23, 2023). Additionally, the willingness of Oklahoma superintendents to hire teachers from out-of-state is also promising given the steady increase in agricultural education undergraduates at Oklahoma State University from out of state.

Additional conclusions drawn from the first research objective were that superintendents value individuals who exhibit professionalism and have prior teaching and/or agricultural industry experience. It is important to note that superintendents value experience yet do not view additional credentials nor advanced degrees as a priority. Could this be because additional credentials and/or advanced degrees elevate potential SBAE graduates on the pay scale? Since superintendents also act as the chief financial officer for their school district, does the additional monetary commitment serve as a deterrent when evaluating potential candidates? This could have implications for SBAE teacher preparation programs exploring the potential of adding additional certification credentials (e.g., CASE certifications, industry credentials, or National Board Certification) to their program. Much of the value placed by be the superintendents aligns within the teacher commitment component of the conceptual model (Doss & Rayfield, 2021; Pitner, 1988), yet the lack of emphasis on advanced degrees or certifications could stifle the teacher’s commitment and limit growth in instructional practice.

Regarding the evaluation and assessment of SBAE teachers, superintendents still place the greatest value on classroom instruction when evaluating SBAE teachers, but also identify their performance outside the classroom as important to the evaluation process. Considering that effective teachers are the most critical predictor of student success (Eck et al., 2020; Stronge et al., 2011), superintendents valuing classroom instruction is pivotal as these administrators have the opportunity to set the standard or expectation within the SBAE program, ultimately affecting student achievement (Clark & Cole, 2015). Agricultural education teachers are also evaluated differently than other schoolteachers making the development of positive professional relationships with administration even more important (Sulaver, 2008). Beyond classroom instruction, FFA advisement and responsibilities fell second on the list of priorities when evaluating SBAE teacher performance. Could this be linked to a desire for student engagement and success, or viewed as the primary way to showcase student and program success to the community and local stakeholders? Or could it be that superintendents view success in the FFA as a direct reflection of the SBAE teachers’ ability to effectively teach in the classroom setting?

Interestingly, superintendents did not see value in an SBAE teachers’ ability to connect STEM concepts or core content areas within agricultural education curriculum. Does this imply school superintendents do not perceive SBAE as a way to illuminate and strengthen STEM concepts and core curriculum areas through real-world application? Perhaps this relates to the nature of SBAE in Oklahoma which has had a predominant focus on livestock exhibition and evaluation, perhaps explaining why “has livestock experience” ranked sixth in priority. Administrators play an essential role in the support of new teachers, even more so in CTE disciplines (Self, 2001) such as SBAE. Perhaps this connects back to a lack of understanding of SBAE, as many of them do not have direct experience with CTE programs (Zirkle & Jeffery, 2017). Does the elective mentality of Oklahoma SBAE programs impact the perceived value of STEM integration and core content connections, as Oklahoma is behind the curve when it comes to offering core credit or industry credentialling as a part of CTE courses. This further aligns with the school culture component of the conceptual model presented by Doss and Rayfield (2021; see Figure 1), undergirded by Pitner’s (1988) reciprocal effects model and Leithwood & Montgomery (1982).

When looking at priority areas superintendents place on SBAE programs, the areas pertaining to community and/or student engagement were viewed as somewhat important/important by participating superintendents. Moreover, areas of engagement at the local and state level were viewed more favorably than those on the national scale. These findings align with the findings from research objective two where local FFA advisement and student engagement yielded higher perception scores. But, interestingly, community engagement (M = 4.78) held the highest perceived importance by superintendents yet yielded a mean of 59.6 when considered as a part of SBAE teacher evaluation. If community engagement ranks at the top of the priorities list for SBAE programs, then why does it not carry more weight in the evaluation process? Consistent with previous conclusions, industry certifications (M = 3.90) and STEM integration (M = 3.75) fell into the lower half of perceived importance on the priority list. This strengthens the concern of school superintendents not wishing to provide extra funding for additional credentialling nor do they perceive SBAE to support and enhance core content areas within the curriculum. Perhaps part of the issue leading to the increased attrition within SBAE (Eck & Edwards, 2019) can be linked back to the priorities of administrators as they hire, supervise, and support SBAE teachers. Future research should aim to compare the perceptions of administrators, SBAE teachers, and community members/stakeholders on the complete SBAE program.

Considering the priorities and methods related to hiring, supervising, and supporting SBAE teachers within this study, the connection between superintendents and SBAE teachers is evident, and the potential impact an administrator’s decision has on student achievement through the decision-making process is apparent (Pitner, 1988). The priorities a superintendent perceives and places on an SBAE program directly connect back to the school culture and student perceptions of the SBAE program (Leithwood et al., 1990). The model presented by Doss and Rayfield (2021; see Figure 1) appropriately frames the findings and conclusions of this study. Thus, this framework should be considered when evaluating SBAE programs through the lens of administrators.  

It is recommended for SBAE teacher preparation faculty to continue developing positive relationships with school superintendents. Pre-service SBAE teachers should be instructed on advocating for their program and establishing a program that meets community and stakeholder needs. Further exploration into superintendents’ attitudes toward SBAE teacher candidates who hold additional credentials or industry certifications should be conducted, as CTE research has demonstrated the value of teacher credentialing and industry certification for students (Glennie et al., 2020). This research is limited to superintendents in Oklahoma with SBAE programs, which is valuable for the training and support of SBAE teachers in the state and could be transferable to other states who see similar connections between administrators and SBAE programs. Consequently, this study should be replicated to determine if these hiring priorities, evaluation methods, and SABE program priorities are state specific or something that should be generalized on a larger scale. Also, future research should include identifying specific elements of community engagement school superintendents look for when evaluating SBAE teachers.


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