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,

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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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Implications of Pandemic Responses for Extension Education and Outreach

Samuel Quinney, Clemson Extension,
Grace Greene, Clemson University,
Christopher J. Eck, Oklahoma State University,
K. Dale Layfield, Clemson University,
Thomas Dobbins, Clemson University,

PDF Available


As part of daily tasks of Cooperative Extension, agents handle public issues by offering programming by approved methods to inform the public. Within the context of this study, a mixed-methods approach was established to determine the factors impacting behaviors associated with Clemson Extension, programming efforts, and roles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding the attitudes and perceptions of Extension educators and key stakeholders (i.e., advisory committee members), researchers, faculty, and Extension educators can be better prepared to face future challenging while continuing to meet the public demand. This exploratory, mixed methods inquiry investigated the perceptions of current Clemson Extension agents across South Carolina and Extension advisory committee members related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Extensions response. To meet the needs of this mixed methods approach, qualitative interviews were conducted with Extension agents and a survey questionnaire was utilized to collect pertinent data from Extension advisory committee members. Through this study, strengths and challenges for South Carolina Cooperative Extension Agents during the COVID-19 pandemic were learned, providing a framework in the event of similar challenges in the future. Adaptability is key moving forward for Extension, as it allows Extension agents to meet the needs in their communities, serve their primary stakeholder groups, and improve overall perceptions of what they offer. Extension professionals should consider the findings as a starting point to evaluate the current state of Extension programming and how to best move forward to address pertinent agricultural issues.

Introduction/Theoretical Framework

“The pace of innovation in the agriculture-related, health, and human sciences demands that knowledge rapidly reaches the people who depend on it for their livelihoods” (USDA-NIFA, 2021, para. 1). Specifically, the Clemson Cooperative Extension (2021) service aims to “improve the quality of life of all South Carolinians by providing unbiased, research-based information through an array of public outreach programs in youth development; agribusiness; agriculture; food, nutrition and health; and natural resources” (para. 1). The normal day to day operations of Clemson Extension was brought to a halt on March 18th, 2020, after the World Health Organization (2020) declared the Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

As part of daily tasks of Cooperative Extension, agents handle public issues by offering programming by approved methods to inform the public (Dale & Hahn, 1994; Patton & Blaine, 2001). Most issues originate as private concerns and become public when outside agencies become involved and widespread support or opposition is gained. This is often related to an identifiable problem, whereas others may arise from misinformation or inaccurate perceptions (Patton & Blaine, 2001). These contentious issues often create situations in which public input and education can be keys to solving the problem; however, due to the highly charged nature of such issues, many leaders tend to avoid them (Jolley, 2007; Patton & Blaine, 2001; Rittel & Webber, 1973). Clemson extension has always made it a priority to provide relevant programming to address these public issues.

During today’s societal changes of the COVID 19 Pandemic, agricultural communities have faced challenges. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) (2021), the total number of cash receipts by commodity has remained steady, with some commodities increasing between the years 2020 and 2021. Animals and animal products increased just under $8.6 billion, and crops increased just over $11.8 billion via cash receipts reported by the USDA-ERS (2021). Some of these increases in consumer purchases have come through governmental policies, which increased American agriculture commodity purchases from foreign countries under the US and China trade deal. China will purchase and import $40 billion dollars’ worth of American agriculture products including meat goods (McCarthy, 2020), others came from a decrease in store availability, though no nationwide shortages have been reported (USDA, 2021). Though the total cash receipts have improved nationally, local agriculture producers face a distinct set of issues. Such issues include a misinformed public, slaughterhouse backups, and a lack of land availability. However, the agricultural cash receipts have yet to be reported for South Carolina according to the USDA-ERS (2021).

Clemson Extension was not alone, as schools, businesses and government agencies across the U.S. adapted to limit in-person contact (CDC, 2020). Extension agents had to cancel some scheduled programming and events and shift what they could to virtual platforms, such as Zoom, which has been identified as easy-to-use and engaging (Robinson & Poling, 2017). With the pandemic catching most off-guard, little account was taken into the perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs of Clemson Extension agents and advisory groups. To frame the evaluation of these concerns, the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1991) was implemented (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior Model

The theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1991) “provides a useful conceptual framework for dealing with the complexities of human social behavior” (p. 206), as it provides a frame to outline the predictability of an individual’s future plans and behaviors (Ajzen, 1991). The theory of planned behavior has further been implemented (Murphrey et al., 2016) to evaluate one’s perceptions and/or intentions related to formal and informal training (i.e., Extension programming). Within the context of this study, a mixed-methods approach was established to determine the factors (i.e., attitude toward the behavior, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control) impacting behaviors associated with Clemson Extension. Specifically, programming efforts (i.e., attitudes), roles (i.e., norms), issues (i.e., attitude and perceived control), and solutions (i.e., intentions) were addressed to establish best practices learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding the attitudes and perceptions of Extension educators and key stakeholders (i.e., advisory committee members) allows researchers, faculty, and Extension educators to be better prepared to face future challenges while continuing to meet the current public demand.

Purpose and Research Objectives

During today’s societal changes, Clemson Extension has expanded its role to provide education to the public through virtual and other non-contact options. Therefore, this study aimed to determine the perceptions of Clemson Extension agents and the prevalent issues faced within the agriculture community in the South Carolina by interviewing Extension agents and surveying Clemson Extension advisory committee members. Four research questions were developed to guide this study:

  1. Describe the current perceptions of Clemson Extension agents amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Identify the greatest issues facing agriculture in South Carolina according to advisory committee members during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  3. Determine current and potential solutions from Clemson Extension to address the issues faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  4. Create a list of preferred programs and program delivery methods for future Extension programming.


This exploratory, mixed methods inquiry investigated the perceptions of current Clemson Extension agents across South Carolina (N = 154) and Extension advisory committee members (N = 64) related to the COVID-19 pandemic and Extensions response. To meet the needs of this mixed methods approach, qualitative interviews were conducted with Extension agents (n = 6) and a survey questionnaire was utilized to collect pertinent data from Extension advisory committee members.

Qualitative Inquiry Procedures

As with most qualitative inquiries, this study sought to provide rich information from the Extension agents as they adapt with the changing dynamics of the pandemic. A purposive sampling strategy was implemented to reach data saturation amongst the variety of agents across the state. This sampling method included soliciting participation from agents from all five regions and 10 program teams, resulting in interviews with six agents representing five program teams and all five regions spanning 15 counties, as some agents work in multiple counties. For proper tracking of data, each participating agent was provided a pseudo name that is outlined in Table 1.

Table 1

Clemson Extension Agents Who Participated in the Study (n = 6)

Pseudo Name Sex Region Program Team 
Shawn Male Region 4 Horticulture 
Abigail Female Region 1 4-H Youth Development 
Violet Female Region 5 Livestock & Forages 
Leonard Male Region 3 Forestry & Wildlife 
Keith Male Region 4 Agronomic Crops 
Taylor Male Region 2 Horticulture 

To address the overarching research objective of the qualitative inquiry, a flexible interview protocol was established spanning four topic areas, including: 1) Accessibility and program impacts; 2) Responding in a time of crisis; 3) Remote instruction and distance education; and 4) Economic and communication concerns early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Each topic area included probing questions to help facilitate conversation, helping to uncover the specific paradigm being studied. Glesne (2016) identifies the specific paradigm or reality being evaluated within this study as an ontology, as the study aimed to discover and individuals’ beliefs associated with their current reality, further connecting to the theory base (Ajzen, 1991) as we try to uncover future intentions. The interview protocol was checked for face and content validity (Salkind, 2012) by two faculty members with teaching and research experience in Extension education and research methodology. All six interviews were conducted by an undergraduate student minoring in Extension education following the interview protocol for consistency. Additionally, a fieldwork notebook was compiled by the interviewer to document the interview experiences through observation notes, interview notes, and reflexive thoughts (Glesne, 2016).

The interviews were conducted using Zoom due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and University regulations. The interviews were recorded and transcribed using features embedded in the Zoom platform, which were then compared against one another for accuracy. In addition to the interview recordings and transcriptions, interviewer notes were used for triangulation of data. To further increase the trustworthiness of the study, the research team followed the recommendations of Privitera (2017) to establish credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability within the study. Creditability was addressed through coding member checks across the research team to reduce bias (Creswell & Poth, 2018) along with triangulation of data and saturation of emerging categories (Privitera, 2020). To enhance transferability the researchers described the participants (including pseudonyms), detailed the interview and data analysis process, and highlighted the perspectives of the participants. Procedural explanations and data triangulation furthered the dependability of the research (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Privitera, 2020), and a reflexivity statement was included to describe any inherent biases associated with then phenomenon (Privitera, 2020).

Confirmability refers to the objectivity of the findings and the ability to interpret the narrative of the experience of participants to determine the essence of the phenomena instead of the researcher’s bias (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Privitera, 2020). A reflexivity statement describes the researchers previous understanding of the phenom

To analyze the interview transcripts through a qualitative lens, this study implemented the constant comparative method (Glasser & Strauss, 1967), which permits the data to speak for itself, allowing themes to emerge. The first round of coding used open-coding sources, allowing themes to emerge through the process (Creswell & Poth, 2018). Axial coding was followed for second-round coding, where the relationships between open codes resulted in overarching categories (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Glasser & Strauss, 1967). Round three of coding was selective coding, where the researchers determined the core variables from the qualitative interviews.

The purposive sampling provides a limiting factor as only six Clemson Extension agents were interviewed for the purpose of this study. Therefore, the findings of this study are limited to the views of the participants and not necessarily that of all agents in the state, but the findings of the study can be used to inform practice, guide future research, and potentially offer state-wide implementations based on needs. The research team recommends caution when looking to generalize the data, although the data has transferable qualities if the readers deem the population and situations identified as germane to their inquiry.

Within a qualitative inquiry, Palaganas et al. (2017) recommends for researchers to acknowledge any inherent bias and reveal their identify to offer reflexivity. The research team consisted of two faculty members in agricultural education at Clemson, a current Extension educator, and an undergraduate student pursuing a minor in extension education. The faculty members have more than 30 years of experience combined in agricultural and extension education. We recognize our bias toward Extension because of our faculty roles and have attempted to harness that bias through a consistent interview protocol, interviewer, and extensive field notes.

Survey Research Procedures

This non-experimental descriptive survey research component aimed to reach Clemson Extension advisory committee members (N = 64) in Abbeville, Anderson, Greenville, Oconee, and Pickens counties in South Carolina. The counties selected to participate in the survey were selected for their vast differences, including suburban, rural agriculture/homesteads, small towns, and large cities. The populations of the participating counties were Greenville – 507,003; Anderson – 198,064; Pickens – 124,029; Oconee – 77,528, and Abbeville – 24,627 (United States Census Bureau, 2021).

The questions addressed in this study were designed to assess how the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service adapted during the COVID 19 pandemic. Survey questions were divided into three categories, 1) Agricultural issues, 2) Extension programming, and 3) Participant demographics. The agricultural issues category elicited open ended responses to determine the greatest issues facing agriculture and what Clemson Extension is and can do to help the issues. The second category aimed to determine the preferred program delivery methods and primary program teams of interest. The researcher-developed survey was reviewed for face and content validity by Agricultural Education faculty and Clemson Extension professionals.

Of the 64 advisory members who received the survey via email, 27 responded, resulting in a 42.2% response rate. Participants were 55.6% male and 44.4% female and ranged in age from 29 to 73 years old, with agricultural involvement varying from pre-production/production agriculture to agricultural consumers (see Table 2) across the five counties. Data was analyzed using SPSS Version 27 to address the proposed research questions.

Table 2

Personal and Professional Demographics of Extension Advisory Committee Members in South Carolina (n = 27).

Demographics   f %
Gender Male 15 55.6
  Female 12 44.4
  Prefer not to respond 0 0.0
Age 21 to 30 1 3.7
  31 to 40 5 18.5
  41 to 50 3 11.1
  51 to 60 8 29.6
  61 to 70 4 14.8
  70 or older 6 22.2
  Did not respond 0 0.0
 Current Role in Agriculture Pre-Production  7.4 
 Did not respond 1 3.7


Research Question 1: Describe the current perceptions of Clemson Extension agents amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The emerging codes, themes, and categories were used to explain the perceptions of Clemson Extension agents related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Four overarching categories emerged from the findings.

Category 1: Extension is Adaptable

 Keith stated, “we’re used to getting things thrown in our lap, everybody in the world or everybody in the country says, you have any questions call your county extension agent,” which reinforced this concept. When considering the COVID-19 pandemic, Keith went on to say, “as far as agronomy agents and a lot of the horticulture agents, we’ve never quit visiting farmers, when they call, we go.” The changes caused by the pandemic looked different across the state, depending on the needs of community, which was encompassed through the thoughts of Extension professionals “adapting every single day and the pandemic just made it a big step, as opposed to little steps. We just had to figure out a way to continue to do what we’re already doing, just in a different format” (Leonard). Other interviews built upon these same lines of thought to demonstrate the overall adaptability of Clemson Extension.

Category 2: Need for Training and Resources

The greatest need indicated across the interviews was specific training and resources to help Extension professionals and constituents navigate the pandemic. Keith simply stated that “everybody’s been putting out fires and handling their own problems … and I think some help and some guidance with all our delivery programs would be great.” Abigail further identified “a big chunk of people who are probably [her] age and younger and then a couple of older ones who … are more traditional, who need some help.” The participants identified specific training needs for agents across the state related to Zoom, virtual programming, and mental health of both adults and youth, “because as the times change, new stuff comes up.” Additional resources were also discussed by participants as many Extension professionals “live out in the middle of nowhere and Internet does not come to [their] house” (Shawn), requiring them to work of a limited data hot spot, when the data is gone, they are without internet. Participants also expressed a need for computers “that can handle Zoom,” so they can utilize Zoom features and provide essential programming to constituents. The final resource need is for the community members Extension professionals aim to reach, as many farmers and ranchers struggle to engage using technology, which Leonard explained that “it’s not necessarily that they can’t do it, a lot of them just don’t have the ability. Your rural areas just don’t have computers.”

Category 3: Community Perceptions

Perceptions of the communities Extension professionals serve was expressed by Violet as, “we’ve been at this so long, I wonder about our relevance… I’m still making farm visits, but a lot of people think we’re closed.” Similarly, Taylor struggled “going from what we normally do and being the face of the public and the face of the university to everything [moving] online, was tough. The biggest struggle was getting over the hill of convincing yourself that this is the way it’s going to be and then having to convince clientele that this is the way it’s going to be for a little while.” The change in delivery was difficult for all involved and many are concerned with the impact of the pandemic on the relationship between the Extension professional and the clientele moving forward. Which, Violet expressed as her “greatest concern, is how to bring those people back and have them trust us again and know that we’re still working, we’re still here and we still deserve to be paid, that sort of thing. I’ve heard all those things so that’s probably what I’m worried about the most.”

Category 4: Reluctancy to New Methods

Violet explained that “certainly the Zoom capabilities are good, but there’s been some reluctance to use them from our older crowd, and, unfortunately most farmers are 65 and older.” She went on to express the hardships as “it’s been a little bit hard to pull them [older farmers] in and get them to really feel connected. They like our meetings for the information side of it, but also the community feel, and I think you do lose a little bit of that with the virtual sense or virtual realm.” In contrast, Taylor found a positive side to the new methods as “we’re reaching a lot more people, especially on our side of the team that probably wouldn’t normally come to a meeting because they can just jump on a computer now.” But he also went on to explain the reluctance as “a majority of our clientele is older, the Zoom thing is tough for them, the technology piece is tough… We picked up a lot of clients… but we probably have some frustrated clients because of it.”

Research Question 2: Identify the greatest issues facing agriculture in South Carolina according to advisory committee members during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The second research question focused on determining the greatest issue(s) currently facing the agricultural industry in South Carolina. Of the 27 respondents, two primary issues arose, the cost/lack of agricultural inputs and outputs, and the need for local produce and meat products. Table 3 outlines underlying issues that make up those broader categories.

Table 3

Greatest Issues Facing South Carolina Agriculture (n = 27)

CategorySpecific Issues
Cost/Lack of Agricultural Inputs and OutputsLand, Seed, Feed, Fertilizer, Chemicals; Slaughter Facilities
 Increased Cost due to Urban Sprawl; Market Fluctuations
Need for Local Produce and Meat productsCOVID Restrictions; Farmers Market and Open-Air Markets Closed

Research Question 3: Determine current and potential solutions from Clemson Extension to address the issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The third research question addressed the current and potential solutions Clemson Extension is currently providing or could provide to address issues in agriculture. Table 4 outlines the current solutions being offered, although 14.8% of respondents felt that nothing was currently available. The two current solutions include agricultural education and agricultural land loss prevention. Specifically, agricultural education represents the Making It Grow programming offered through South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV), information provided by the Home Garden Information Center (HGIC), 4-H youth development programming, and Extension programs/Education. The second solution to currently assist agriculturalists is the agricultural land loss prevention program focused on agricultural land easements offered through the USDA-NRCS office.

Table 4

Solutions Available for Current Agricultural Issues (n = 27)

Current SolutionsSpecific Program/Offering
Agricultural EducationMaking it Grow
 4-H Youth Programming
 Extension Programs/Education
Agricultural Land Loss PreventionAgricultural Land Easements-NRCS

In addition to current programs, respondents’ ideas for potential solutions were of interest to the research team. Respondents identified two categories of solutions, the first being to publicize Extension programs and services better, so the public have a better understanding of what Extension does and what is being offered. The second solution was an increase in agricultural education, specifically targeting small farms and farming for-profit programs, additionally youth education opportunities, along with specific education programming highlighting the historical importance of agricultural land and keeping that land in agricultural production. Much of this was connected to 56% of respondents identifying COVID-19 as having a specific impact on agriculture in the state. Specifically, one of the greatest concerns was the impact of virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many individuals did not have access to virtual programming due to lack of technology or internet. A potential option that was presented was being sure to offer recorded (asynchronous) programming options versus the live (synchronous) options currently available.

Research Question 4: Create a list of preferred programs and program delivery methods for future Extension programming.

The final objective aimed to establish the preferred program delivery methods for future extension programming, along with current and future program interests. Table 6 outlines the preferred information delivery method of respondents.

Table 6

Preferred Information Delivery Method (n = 27)

Delivery Methodf%
Office Visits622.2
No Preference622.2
Farm Visits13.7
Text Updates13.7
Fact Sheets13.7
Postal Mail13.7
Social Media13.7

In addition, 55.6% of participants said they would be willing to participate in future virtual programming if offered, while 22.2% of participants said they would not participate, and the remaining 22.2% were unsure. To further understand programmatic interests, participants were asked to identify which of the Clemson Extension Program teams had provided the most information during the pandemic, Table 7 outlines their responses.

Table 7

Programmatic Teams Offering the Most Programming During COVID 19

Program Teamf%
Forestry and Wildlife414.8
Agricultural Education311.1
Food Systems and Safety27.4
Livestock and Forages13.7
Rural Health and Nutrition13.7

Although 4-H was reported as the program team providing the most programming during the pandemic, participants expressed the most interest in more programming from the forestry and wildlife team (33.3%), followed by the agricultural education and livestock and forages teams, both with 26% of the respondents interested. The agribusiness team (22.2%) and the horticulture team (18.5%) rounded out the top five. The remaining program areas had less than 14% of participants interested.

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

Through this study, strengths and challenges for South Carolina Cooperative Extension Agents during the COVID-19 pandemic were learned, providing a framework in the event of similar challenges in the future. As identified in the category one finding, “Extension is Adaptable,” discussed how agents continued to meet their constituent’s needs, but through use of many creative means. a benefit that will aide Cooperative Extension Agents is the ability to adapt quickly. This ability to adapt would support those aspects in the category two findings which identified a need for training/in-service of Cooperative Extension Agents and their constituents. Category three, “Community Perceptions,” is reflective of the anxiety and uncertainty that was commonly experienced during the pandemic. Shifts in time and locations of workplace during the pandemic created a variety of uninformed interpretations of staff labor and confusion among the clientele base. Category four, “Reluctancy to New Methods” was commonly thought to be a challenge, but during the pandemic, it became widely know that there are gaps in technological competencies. Altough Extension agents had negative perceptions about certain components of their ability to provide appropriate education and outreach to constituent groups, their overall intentions were positive leading to actionable behaviors (Ajzen, 1991) that made an impact in their communities and states.

According to the advisory committee members in this study, there are two primary issues (i.e., attitudes; Ajzen, 1991) facing agriculture (i.e., cost or lack of agricultural inputs and outputs and the need for local produce and meat products) in South Carolina. The first issue can be contributed to the availability of land due to urban sprawl as well as all input costs having significantly increased in spring 2021. Additionally, slaughter facilities have been waitlisted for the last year due to high demand for American meat products. The area of concern can be considered together with the first due to slaughterhouses being backed up, local meat producers are unable to get their product finished out and packed for sale. Open air markets and farmers have been under the mercy of local and federal government’s restrictions, which have limited or cancelled all opportunities for local produce to be made available (L. Keasler, personal communication, 2021). Although these issues are of concern, Extension has the opportunity to address some of them by providing timely and accurate information to those who need it most. This allows the agents to control what they can through communication, reducing the negative perception and informing stakeholders if the subjective norms (Ajzen, 1991) currently impacting agricultural production.

Extension can work with local producers to ensure that they are in contact with their local and state representatives to be made aware of the issues that American agriculturalists are facing in today’s environment. Extension can also provide more agricultural education to the general consumer to assist our agricultural producers in informing the community what issues they face to maintain their livelihood. Some things cannot be controlled, such as market fluctuations and processing facilities operation. However, agents can make public representatives aware of the issues, asking them to push these issues in front of our elected legislative bodies to enact change through governmental policies. According to Anderson and Salkehatchie counties Cattlemen’s Association members and meat producers (personal communication, January 12, 2021), the availability of funds to build more USDA certified handling facilities would increase the speed at which products can be made available to markets, as well as increase jobs in areas where these facilities are housed. Perhaps, inputs such as fertilizers and herbicides can be regulated by government to avoid price gouging when they are needed the most, making the big companies richer and the hard-working farmers pockets tighter to continue to make a living in production agriculture.

Local fruit and vegetable producers face a slightly different issue in that they are at the mercy of local, state, and federal mandates, only operating at full capacity when they are told it is safe to do so (L. Keasler, personal communication, 2021). Similarly, Extension is subject to these same mercies, although we have seemed to reach a new normal, the findings of this study can be beneficial for Clemson Extension and similar Extension agencies in other states.

The implications support the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), as agents recognized that they could adapt to meet the needs of their constituents during time of many unknowns and countless challenges demonstrates how favorable attitudes and intentions result in adaptable behaviors. These behaviors include the awareness of need for additional training and to seek resources to meet needs. Paradoxically, the resistance of many constituents to accept alternative programming methods presented opposing behaviors from the agents, creating additional challenges. Regardless, adaptability is key moving forward for Extension, as it allows Extension agents to meet the needs in their communities, serve their primary stakeholder groups, and improve overall perceptions of what they offer. Although it should be noted that many of the factors impacting Extension during the COVID-19 pandemic were outside of the Extension agents’ control, ultimately impacting the perceived behavioral control the agents had on situations (Ajzen, 1991).

Considering recommendations for Extension professionals, a need exists to better publicize programs and services offered from the county offices to increase awareness and community participation. This can be done through local news organizations such as newspapers, radio stations, social media, and news channels. Although the pandemic has provided its share of challenges, the increased availability for virtual programming has some benefits, such as being able to reach a broader audience across the state who previously never participated in Extension programming. Moving forward it is recommended that Extension consider ways to offer programming in-person and virtually to continue to expand the diversity of people being reach for programming. Perhaps, with a collaborative effort Clemson Extension could make a greater impact on the future of agriculture across the state, as agriculture makes an impact on everyone’s daily life. Extension professionals should consider the findings as a starting point to evaluate the current state of Extension programming and how to best move forward to address pertinent agricultural issues.

Realizing the conclusions and implications addressed in this study, it is recommended that Cooperative Extension Services consider the following actions:

  1. Initiate an assessment of State Cooperative Extension Service staff to develop a comprehensive guide on best management practices in the event of future events of the magnitude experienced from the COVID-19 pandemic;
  2. Develop a series of in-service offerings on communications tools for delivery of online programming, provided at different skills levels;
  3. Coordinate with agencies that provide professional development in awareness of mental health issues and recommended practices and resources available, and
  4. Establish a review team of IT experts for the Cooperative Extension Service that will develop a standard protocol to assure that technologies (laptops, scanners, etc.) needed for online delivery and required Internet access will be available for staff to successfully complete their programming remotely as needed.


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Everyday People in Agriculture: Our Voices, Our Concerns, Our Issues

Chastity Warren

Dr. Chastity Warren English, Professor of Agriscience Education at North Carolina A&T State University, presented the 2023 Distinguished Lecture at the Southern Region Conference of the American Association for Agricultural Education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Dr. Warren English’s talk focused on the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belong in agricultural education and allied sectors while also highlighting her lived experiences in the discipline. She also illuminated the concerns of her students in an 1890 Land-grant University context. This article is a philosophical work based on her distinguished lecture…

Read More

A Philosophical Perspective Revisiting Teaching “In” and “About” Agriculture

Blake C. Colclasure, Doane University,

Brianna Shanholtzer, STEMscopes,

Andrew C. Thoron, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College,

R. Kirby Barrick, University of Florida,

PDF Available


School-based agricultural education (SBAE) has evolved considerably in the last century. This philosophical perspective examines the history of formal agricultural education in the United States and explores how early contributions to agricultural education shaped the structure of modern SBAE. The divergent roles of agricultural education to: 1) provide a qualified agricultural workforce for the 21st century, and 2) educate students about agriculture, are discussed. Furthermore, a conceptual framework for the structure of K-12 agricultural education is proposed, which attempts to provide a solution to gaps in agricultural career readiness and agricultural literacy.

Keywords:agricultural education, agricultural literacy, agriculture workforce, career and technical education


The modern agricultural industry in the United States looks far different from the farming operations that provided the country with food, fiber, and natural resources during the early 20th century (Conkin, 2009). Today’s agricultural industry has become more complex and globally interconnected (Ajibola, 2019; Ding & Qian, 2016). Trends in technological advancements have led to increased efficiency and strive to meet demands of a growing global population, while agricultural production has been confronted with social, political, and environmental challenges (National Research Council [NRC], 2009a). The new era of a technological advanced and industrialized agricultural landscape offers solutions to global food shortages, but must continue to take critical steps to be more sustainable and environmentally sensitive (Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], 2015; FAO, 2017).

The transformational shift in agriculture production has redefined the once blue-collar American farmer. The next generation of agriculturalists require an advanced skillset beyond a general knowledge in agriculture. Twenty-first century “farmers” need to be interdisciplinary problem solvers and critical thinkers who can work collaboratively with diverse groups of people (NRC, 2009a). Furthermore, the new era of agriculture requires workers who are able to apply science and technology to confront challenges that are not yet known (Little, 2019). There has been no other time in history when the requirements of the agricultural worker have been more complex nor the supply of qualified agricultural workers so low (Whittaker & Williams, 2016). The pipeline of qualified agricultural workers appears be corroding and the changing agricultural landscape requires a new definition for the agricultural worker. Consequently, how we prepare the future agricultural workforce may require a new approach (NRC, 2009b).

To add to these challenges, as the agricultural industry battles the shortage of qualified workers (Whittaker & Williams, 2016), the industry is also being confronted with a society that lacks a connection to agriculture (Kover & Ball, 2013). A 2011 national survey conducted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) found that 72% of consumers indicated they know nothing or very little about farming or ranching (2011). A similar national-level survey sent one-year later indicated that more than one in four consumers are confused about the food they purchase and that young adults (i.e., 18- to 29-year-olds) are more confused about food purchases compared to other age groups (USFRA, 2012). However, the survey also revealed that nearly 60% of consumers desire to know more about how food is grown and raised and that lower-income households are particularly likely to say they want to know more but indicate not having the time or money to do so (USFRA, 2012).

Formal and informal educational programs designed to enrich students’ understanding of food and food systems have had a long history in America’s K-12 public education (Salin, 2018). However, these programs have waxed and waned along with shifts in educational theory and funding. Furthermore, socioeconomic gaps in educational opportunities remain. Due to the public’s expanding knowledge gap in agriculture (Kover & Ball, 2013) and growing concern about food production, formal school-based agricultural education (SBAE) needs to be well positioned to teach all students about agriculture in order for them to become informed consumers of agricultural goods and who possess a basic understanding of where food comes from and how it is produced.


This philosophical paper explores the role and structure of SBAE in the United States to confront both the need for a modern agricultural workforce and an agriculturally-literate society. The historical development of agricultural education that has led to divergent pathways is discussed: teaching about agriculture and teaching in agriculture. A 21st century model for the structure of SBAE is proposed which attempts to conceptualize agricultural education as a solution to combat two existing gaps: (1) agricultural career readiness; and, (2) agricultural literacy.

Summary of SBAE Structural Development in the United States

The first account of agriculture being formally taught in the United States occurred in Georgia in 1733 when three men were hired to instruct individuals how to produce raw silk (Moore & Gaspard, 1987). Since then, vocational education, and specifically agricultural education, has been evolving. The first major push for vocational education occurred in the early 20th century when the nation’s growing industrial and agricultural societies called for a more practical education beyond liberal arts (Moore & Gaspard, 1987). Hallmark legislative actions, such as the 1862 and 1890 Morrill Acts along with the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, provided the foundation for formal education in agriculture and mechanical arts across the United States (Barrick, 1989). The passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 supplied each state with funding to establish colleges for higher education in agriculture and mechanical arts, which placed importance on the need for public vocational education in higher education (Moore & Gaspard, 1987).  

The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act directly impacted public vocational education at the secondary level by providing federal funding for vocational programs. The Federal Government believed that vocational education was essential to the nation’s welfare and established the act to allow states to develop a system to design and deliver vocational education (Federal Board for Vocational Education, 1917). The resources provided by the Smith-Hughes Act inspired swift changes in secondary vocational education and established state boards of vocational education. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 had many rules for the allocation of federal funding. One rule in particular stated that “if a high school student was taught one class by a teacher paid in full or in part from federal vocational funds, that same student could receive no more than fifty percent academic instruction” (Prentice Hall Documents Library, 1998, para 8). As a result, the Federal Vocational Board divided the time of students enrolled in vocational education into three segments, 50 percent in shop work, 25 percent in closely related subjects, and 25 percent in academic course work. The division of student enrollment became known as the 50-25-25 rule (Hayward & Benson, 1993). The Smith-Hughes Act and the 50-25-25 rule guided agricultural education towards a more vocational approach, which emphasized agricultural trade skills and the preparation of students to become farmers (NRC, 1988).

For the next half century, vocational education remained nearly the same. Vocational education emphasized job-specific skills, nearly eliminating theoretical content, and became increasingly segregated by subject matter (e.g., agriculture, industrial arts, home economics). As vocational careers began to evolve with technical changes, students lacked the skills needed in the new workplace and were not effectively trained to adapt to the changing environment. The need for a new paradigm in agricultural education was evident, yet the practice of teaching in SBAE remained stagnant, resulting in declining student enrollment and poor student career preparation.

As a result of declining enrollment in agricultural education in the 1980s, and subsequently a larger population becoming further removed from agriculture, the National Research Council sought to identify a new paradigm for agricultural education programs. The 1988 NRC publication, Understanding Agriculture – New Directions for Education, provided recommendations to broaden the scope of agricultural education as an effort to foster a renewed urgency for a society familiar with the workings of agriculture. In Understanding Agriculture – New Directions for Education, the NRC defined the term agricultural literacy as an “understanding of the food and fiber system [that] includes its history and current economics, social, and environmental significance to all Americans” (NRC, 1988, p. 8). The NRC (1988) claimed that the focus of agricultural education must change, stating that agricultural education is more than vocational agriculture. The NRC also recommended that students should receive education about agricultural from kindergarten through twelfth grade, suggesting the integration of agricultural content into existing core courses. Lastly, the NRC claimed that vocational education in agriculture must be continuously adapting to stay current with the evolving field of agriculture. The new paradigm of SBAE established that agricultural education must be comprehensive in coverage, scientific in method, and practical in impact and focus (NRC, 1988). 

Agricultural Education Today

Among the Career and Technical Education (CTE) disciplines established in the United States during the formative years of school-based vocational training, agricultural education has fared considerably well compared to the rest of its counterparts. The number of programs in industrial arts, technology education, and home economics have waned (Lynch, 1996; Volk, 1993) while enrollment in SBAE increased, recruiting an increasingly diverse student population (Brown & Kelsey, 2013; Warner & Washburn, 2009). Like other programs in CTE, SBAE continues to face a shortage of qualified teachers, expressing concern for the sustainability and growth of agricultural education across the country (Boone & Boone, 2009; Eck & Edwards, 2019; Kantrovich, 2010; Moser & McKim, 2020; Myers et al., 2005).

The complete agricultural education program is represented by the three-circle model, consisting of classroom instruction, Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE), and FFA (Phipps et al., 2008). Each of the three components seen within the model continues to play an integral part of agricultural education across the United States today, despite individual programs reporting varying emphasis on each component (Shoulders & Toland, 2017).

Classroom Instruction

The three-circle model suggests that contextual learning should take place in a laboratory or classroom setting. SBAE has experienced a strong history of experiential learning, stemming from vocational preparation through hands-on and problem-based learning (Parr & Edwards, 2004). Modern instruction in SBAE has become blended in both vocational and academic pursuits. Although active learning strategies have been central to the vision of SBAE, it has been documented that instruction using active learning is currently used far less by teachers than what is recommended (Colclasure et al., 2022; Smith et al., 2015). The emphasis of hands-on learning and skill-based learning in SBAE has provided an opportunity to make science topics applicable and relevant to students, all the while reinforcing academic content (Despain et al., 2016; Phipps et al., 2008). The integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education into agricultural curriculum has become central in modern SBAE (Roberts et al., 2016). Furthermore, the integration of science and math-based learning objectives and learning activities that require higher levels of cognition have shown to increase student learning (Parr et al., 2006; Spindler, 2015).

Student acquisition of content knowledge and skills remain the critical component of education programs. In an era of standard-based testing, measures of student content knowledge are used to provide accountability of student learning. It has been suggested that learning objectives across all disciplines be tied to federal and state learning standards and linked to assessment (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005). For modern SBAE, The National Council for Agricultural Education (NCAE, 2015) developed national learning standards for agricultural education, promoting eight educational pathways that include: (1) Agribusiness Systems; (2) Animal Systems; (3) Biotechnology Systems; (4) Environmental Service Systems; (5) Food Products and Processing; (6) Natural Resource Systems; (7) Plant Systems; and (8) Power, Structural and Technical Systems (The Council, 2015). Many states have also created their own agricultural learning standards and have developed industry certifications for students completing course pathways and passing industry certification exams (Florida Department of Education, 2022; Street et al., 2021). The goal of industry certification is to produce highly qualified graduates who are career ready for specific entry-level positions. Industry certifications have established a more concrete link between industry needs and the content that is taught in some SBAE programs.


The SAE provides students planned, sequential agricultural instruction that applies classroom topics to student-invested applications that students can understand (Phipps et al., 2008). Through the completion of an SAE, students can gain knowledge in workplace skills, explore different careers in the agricultural industry, and conduct projects that make learning meaningful, inspiring future learning. Despite positive outcomes of the SAE component, many SBAE programs fall short in successfully incorporating SAE programs, which creates a clear deviation from the three-circle model (Lewis et al., 2012a).

Unfortunately, a continuous trend in declining levels of SAE participation has been documented (Lewis et al., 2012b). Despite declining trends in the use of SAE, teachers have generally supported the concept of SAE programs (Osborne, 1988; Retallick, 2010). According to Retallick (2010), the most emergent cause of low student SAE enrollment is teacher difficulty in implementing SAE programs. This phenomenon is not new. Foster (1986) identified factors associated with why SAE programs are not implemented that include: lack of teacher time; lack of facilities (e.g. land labs); lack of student desire; and student demands from other school activities. Adding to these factors, student demographics in SBAE have changed considerably, causing perceived opportunities for quality SAEs to decline (Phipps et al., 2008). A lack of comprehensive preservice teacher training in SAE implementation may also contribute to declining SAEs. In a study on perceived teacher self-efficacy, Wolf (2011) found that novice teachers had lower self-efficacy scores for SAE domains compared to domains for both classroom instruction and FFA. Rubenstein et al. (2016), found that engaged teachers were a primary indicator of students developing and implementing successful SAE programs. Programs that fully embrace the SAE as part of the three-circle model typically require every student to conduct an SAE (Rubenstein & Thoron, 2015) and have strong administrative support (Rayfield & Wilson, 2009).


The remaining component of the three-circle model is student participation in FFA. FFA provides students with opportunities for personal growth, career exploration, and leadership at local, state, and national levels. Recent FFA membership has become more diverse, consisting of student membership from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which account for a record number of over 850,000 student members (National FFA Organization, 2022). FFA members are provided with opportunities to apply what they have learned in the classroom through competitions that mimic real-world agricultural and career skills. FFA provides students these opportunities through Career Development Events (CDEs). CDEs not only test students’ knowledge about agriculture but also provide students with opportunities to showcase their experience and skills in agriculture (Lundry et al., 2015).

K-8 Agricultural Education

While a foundational level or introductory agriculture course promoting agricultural literacy continues to be a staple in most secondary SBAE programs, middle school agricultural education programs have emerged in some states throughout the country. Although the purpose of SBAE at the middle school level continues to be refined, some states have created guides for middle school agricultural education programs that include basic agricultural literacy and opportunities for students’ agricultural career exploration (Odubanjo, 2018). Further efforts to promote agricultural literacy in public education is evident. In 1981, the USDA established the Agriculture in the Classroom campaign, creating educational programs for K-12 students across the country to learn about agriculture. The Agriculture in the Classroom campaign established agricultural learning standards for K-12 public education that range from basic agricultural knowledge to specific knowledge of the agricultural industry (Spielmaker & Leising, 2013). The Agriculture in the Classroom campaign continues to promote agricultural literacy for K-12 students today.

Preparing an Agriculturally-Literate Society: Teaching “About” Agriculture

The cohesive design and delivery of SBAE across the country has become splintered by varying ideologies of the purpose of agricultural education. The creation of national and state learning standards and industry certification programs that are linked to career-specific pathways have attempted to re-align SBAE to vocational approaches of education. Concurrently, SBAE has seen a large push for increased agricultural literacy and curriculum integration (e.g., STEM) in the last decade, further expanding the mission of agricultural education beyond career readiness. The purpose of agricultural education seems to be split between preparing an agriculturally-literate society and preparing students for careers in agriculture.

The importance of agricultural literacy has been well-noted in the literature. Pope (1990) expressed that agricultural literacy is fundamental to a society that lacks direct connection to production agriculture, so that well informed individuals can make educated decision regarding agriculture. Igo and Frick (1999) claimed that an agriculturally-literate society is needed if the agricultural industry in the United States is to remain successful. Furthermore, Kovar and Ball (2013) suggested that agricultural literacy is imperative to maintain a sustainable and viable agricultural system that is capable to feed a growing global population.

Preparing a Workforce in Modern Agriculture: Teaching “In” Agriculture

CTE has provided a necessary link between workforce readiness, commercial industry, and public education (McNamara, 2009). SBAE, as part of the umbrella of CTE programming, has had an early history rooted within the sole purpose of preparing students for vocational careers within production agriculture (NRC, 1988). Curricula within vocational programs were designed to meet the needs of industry-related employers. From the 1920s to the mid-1980s, curriculum within SBAE was designed with the purpose to train students to become farmers (NRC, 1988). As production agriculture changed over time, SBAE curricula partially developed to reflect such changes, teaching industrial methods of technical agriculture.

Despite efforts across CTE programs to establish a career-ready workforce, a recent trend indicating deficiencies of the number of graduating students who have the knowledge and skills required by industry has led to a nation-wide skills gap (Whittaker & Williams, 2016). Evidence of the skills gap has sparked a recent return to the investment of CTE programs in the United States (Stringfield & Stone, 2017). Governing agencies within CTE have promoted the use of career pathways and industry certifications within secondary education to advance students’ acquisition of skills and successful transition from high school into the workplace (Stringfield & Stone, 2017). In an analysis of U.S. job growth after the Great Recession of 2008, Carnevale et al. (2013) found that the new jobs created after the recession look far different than the jobs that were lost.

Implications for School-based Agricultural Education

The question if agricultural education curricula should be focused in or about agriculture has been debated over the last several decades. Proponents who support either side of the debate have identified valid arguments and have advocated for the advancement of agricultural educational to align with their belief of the purpose of agricultural education. It is hard to disagree with the notion that agricultural education should provide students with a foundational understanding of the production of food, fiber, and natural resources. Increasing the agricultural literacy of our society has never been of greater importance, as today’s youth have become more disconnected from the farm (USDA, 2014; Vallera & Bodzin, 2016). However, if the primary goal of agricultural education lies within improving students’ agricultural literacy, we must question if we are drifting too far from the historical roots of agricultural education, where the initial purpose was to prepare the next generation of agricultural workers. If SBAE becomes too centered in teaching about agriculture, we must ask ourselves if we are still considered a member of the CTE community.

Furthermore, focusing on anything less than preparing students for careers could contribute to an increasing skills gap in the United States. There is clearly a need for agricultural education to be positioned to teach about agriculture and to teach in agriculture. In order to achieve both of these tasks, the structure of agricultural education must be critically examined and evaluated, and alternative structures of agricultural education should be considered. As can be seen in figure one, a conceptual framework is proposed that illustrates an example structure for K-12 public education that allows for the effective delivery of agricultural education programs to teach students about and in agriculture.

The conceptual framework illustrates that teaching about agriculture should occur in grades K-9, with agricultural curriculum integration into core curriculum high school courses. Once students obtain a basic understanding of agricultural concepts they can elect to enter a pathway for career readiness identified by state boards of curriculum and individual schools.

Figure 1
A conceptual framework for teaching “in” and “about” agriculture in K-12 education.

Kindergarten – 5th Grade

The first stage in a holistic effort to improve the agricultural literacy among the public is to teach agricultural topics in grades K-5. The importance of agricultural education programs in grades K-5 should not be undervalued, as this formative stage of cognitive development is central to establish a life-long appreciation and interest in agriculture. Programs such as the Agriculture in the Classroom campaign should continue to strive to make sure that every child is exposed to educational applications that engages them in agricultural topics. Opportunities for children to be exposed to agriculture should extend beyond the classroom, increasing the exposure of children to school gardens and working farms. Every child should know where food comes from at the most basic level, and public education at lower levels and in every community should be the primary mechanism to ensure this occurs.

6th Grade – 8th Grade

Federal and state efforts requiring a basic agricultural education course in public education is well-warranted. This framework proposes that students in grades sixth through eighth should be required to enroll in at least one agricultural education course. Courses at this level should focus on teaching students about agriculture on a foundational level. Coursework should be oriented toward agricultural literacy, consisting of subject matter that is rich in consumer knowledge that explores food production from field to fork. Ideally, students will take more than one agricultural education course at the middle school level. However, the teacher shortage in agricultural education (Camp et al., 2002; Kantrovich, 2010; Roberts & Dyer, 2004), and the current status of agricultural education, which is focused at the high school level, creates difficulties in providing agricultural education to every middle school student. Innovative solutions, such as additional middle school agricultural endorsement programs for core curriculum teachers, and offering online agriculture courses, could provide every middle school student with at least one agricultural course. Agricultural courses at the middle school level should focus on basic agricultural content knowledge and literacy.

9th Grade

This framework also proposes that every student should take an advanced introduction to agriculture course during their first year of high school. This course will expand upon the required middle school agriculture course by exposing students to complex agricultural issues that emphasize students’ use of higher order thinking. However, the focus of the advanced introduction to agriculture course will still be centered in teaching about agriculture and will allow students to explore agricultural careers.

9th-12th Grade

Contrary to the integration of core subjects into agriculture courses, this framework highlights the need to integrate agricultural topics into core classes. It is believed that this method will expand agricultural literacy for students who elect to not go into agricultural career pathways. Furthermore, the integration of real-life applications is needed in core curriculum. Stakeholders of agriculture and key organizations in agricultural education should design lessons that have an agricultural context for core curriculum classes that teachers can use to supplement their current lessons.

10th-12th Grade

In order to prepare a specialized and highly-qualified agricultural workforce for the 21st century, this framework proposes that programs should strategically implement a series of career pathway courses that are uniquely tailored to the occupational needs of each state. Such courses should be designed to allow students to obtain the skills needed in localized agricultural careers. The implementation of career certifications in SBAE, which are currently found in some states, provide a necessary link between industry and education. Furthermore, the design of career preparation courses should expand beyond the immediate skill sets needed in the industry and should promote students’ social, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills that are needed in the 21st century workforce. 


The development of agricultural education was first established to prepare individuals for the skills they needed to work on a farm. Following the industrial revolution, federal acts expanded vocational education in secondary schools and post-secondary institutions. The focus in trade-based learning was evident in agricultural education until the reinvention of agricultural education during the 1990s. Agricultural education expanded its mission to teach beyond agricultural trades, emphasizing agricultural knowledge, as opposed to specific career skills. The new paradigm of agricultural education may have been essential for the growth of SBAE. However, the purpose of SBAE to teach about agriculture has led to deficiencies in students’ career preparation while also not fully reaching its potential to educate society about agriculture.

The conceptual framework provided in this paper was developed to offer a solution for agricultural education to be better positioned to teach both about and in agriculture. The framework expands upon existing efforts for agricultural education to reach K-8 students. An expansion of agricultural education at the middle school level is necessary to fully expose students about agriculture. An additional course at the 9th grade level, which exposes students to higher level thinking about agriculture, is necessary. These courses along with the integration of agricultural contexts into core curriculum will aim to decrease the public’s knowledge gap of agriculture. Courses beyond an advanced introductory course will focus on specific agricultural careers and will exist for the purpose of providing students with the advanced skills they need in specific agricultural industries. The authors of the proposed framework understand the complexities associated with the redevelopment of the structure of agricultural education programs; however, in order for agricultural education to simultaneously provide solutions to both career readiness and agricultural literacy, the structure and purpose of agricultural education at each level should be discussed and refined on a national level.

The implementation of the provided conceptual framework would have dramatic implications for SBAE. An enormous increase in the number of students enrolled in SBAE courses would be seen. The expansion of middle school agricultural education programs would educate all students about agriculture, putting less pressure for high school agriculture courses to teach both about and in agriculture. Furthermore, it would be expected that agricultural literacy would increase in society, resulting in a new generation that appreciates and understands the basic components of food production. A renewed focus on advanced career preparation for specific career pathways could potentially reduce the number of students being taught career-specific agricultural skills. However, students completing specific career pathways that are tailored to the demands of industry, would be adequately prepared to enter the workforce or continue advanced, postsecondary training in a specific field. The investment in this educational design could contribute to closing the large skills gap identified in industry. Agricultural education has advanced in many ways to become a model for CTE. Despite its many successes over the last century, the current structure of agricultural education is beginning to experience unintended strain from pressures asking agricultural education to do too much with its existing structure. The current structure of SBAE is not appropriately designed to teach both about and in agriculture, where both purposes are given the attention they need. The proposed conceptual framework included in this paper is one of many potential designs to offer alternatives for the structure of agricultural education to meet challenges that are currently being faced in agriculture. 


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