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

Chris Clemons, Auburn University, cac0132@auburn.edu

Jason D. McKibben, Auburn University, jdm0184@auburn.edu

Clare E. Hancock, Auburn University, cet0071@auburn.edu

James R. Lindner, Auburn University, jrl0039@auburn.edu

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


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

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

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

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

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

Theoretical Framework

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

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

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

Purpose and Research Questions

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


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

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

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


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

Classroom Environment (Teacher Controlled)

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

Instructional Choice

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

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

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

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

Pedagogy: Methods and Practices of Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Learning Environment (Student Controlled)

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

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

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

Foundational Competencies (Skills/Materials)

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

Reading or Writing to Learn

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

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

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

Developing Knowledge and Understanding

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

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

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

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

Educational Materials (Digital and Text-Based Instruction)

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

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

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

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

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

Limitations (Administration)

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

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

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

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

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

William Norris, New Mexico State University, wnorris1@nmsu.edu

Lacey Roberts-Hill, New Mexico State University, lnrob@nmsu.edu

PDF Available


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


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

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

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

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

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

Purpose and Objectives

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

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

Theoretical Framework

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

Figure 1

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

Note. Developed From Becker (1993).



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

Table 1

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

Note. n = 68

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


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

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

Data Collection

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

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

Data Analysis

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


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


Research Objective One

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

Table 2

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

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

Research Objective Two

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

    Table 3

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

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

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

Discussions, Conclusions, and Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fally Masambuka-Kanchewa, Iowa State University, fallymk@iastate.edu

Millicent A. Oyugi, Texas A and M University, millicent.oyugi@ag.tamu.edu

Alexa J. Lamm, University of Georgia, alamm@uga.edu

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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, chris.eck@okstate.edu

Nathan A. Smith, Oklahoma State University, nathan.smith@okstate.edu

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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. https://doi.org/10.5032/jae.2021.04125

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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Preservice Teachers’ Perceptions of their Ability to Use The AET as a Data Management System

Tyler J. Price, Oklahoma State University, tyler.price10@okstate.edu

Emily O. Manuel, Oklahoma State University, emily.manuel@okstate.edu

Emily A. Sewell, Oklahoma State University, easewel@okstate.edu

J. Shane Robinson, Oklahoma State University, shane.robinson@okstate.edu

PDF Available


An increased emphasis has been placed on teaching financial literacy at the secondary school level. As such, SBAE teachers have a unique opportunity to teach students about maintaining records and managing data through the Agricultural Experience Tracker (AET). AET has been used nationwide by SBAE teachers to teach students how to manage finances and maintain proper records. The purpose of the study was to describe the self-perceived and actual efficacy of preservice SBAE teachers toward operating and managing student projects through AET. Forty-two preservice SBAE teachers from Oklahoma State University were instructed in the use of AET. The study measured the students’ perceived self-efficacy to use AET at three points during the 16-week semester. Results showed that students’ self-perceived and actual abilities to use AET increased across all areas throughout the semester. However, although their actual ability to use Financial Applications in AET increased across all three observations, their mean scores were still below a 60%, indicating a failing grade. The state office of career and technical education in Oklahoma should be alerted to the actual competency and self-efficacy levels of the new teachers in the state so that appropriate professional development may be provided once these students enter the teaching ranks.


Debate exists on whether financial literacy should be taught as a stand-alone course or by integrating it into other curricular areas (Totenhagen et al., 2015). Financial literacy is a critical aspect of being a productive member of society in a culture that requires fiscal responsibility to be self-sufficient (Shim et al., 2009). Therefore, it is imperative that adolescents learn about financial matters to prepare them for the transition to adulthood (Shim et al., 2009). The increased interest in teaching financial literacy in U.S. schools has been on the uprise since the 1990s (Walstad et al., 2010). What is understood about financial literacy is that educators should provide opportunities for students to invest their own money, make decisions, and apply concepts related to managing it appropriately, and at minimum should include course topics such as budgeting, saving, and investing, as well as understanding credit and how it is generated (Totenhagen et al., 2015). Parents, schools, and entrepreneurs should create partnerships that are dedicated to teaching youth sound financial practices (Shim et al., 2009). Walstad et al. (2010) identified that a properly implemented program designed to increase financial literacy can significantly impact the knowledge of high school students regarding their finances. The use of simulation-based learning methods has also shown to be a powerful educational intervention that creates environments conducive to student learning (Warren et al., 2016). Levant et al. (2016) posited that business simulations have the potential to benefit all students regardless of gender identities, cultural backgrounds, and previous experiences. Such simulations have shown promise in school-based agricultural education (SBAE) programs. Brown and Knobloch (2022) identified that the use of simulation by SBAE teachers to teach business management skills was better at increasing students’ financial literacy compared to playing a game about business management.

SBAE provides opportunities for students to manage data and maintain records on their agricultural enterprises and projects. In fact, The National Council for Agricultural Education (2011) found the topic so important they included personal financial planning and management as a mandate for each Foundational Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) for students. The goal of the National Council for Agricultural Education (2011) was to have 100% SAE engagement among students. A project known as SAE for All was developed to serve as a resource for SBAE teachers to use in their classrooms due to the need to help students acquire financial planning and management skills through their SAEs (The National Council for Agricultural Education, 2011). In addition to adding financial planning as a mandate for SAE projects, the National Council for Agricultural Education’s (2015) revision of the National Agriculture Food and Natural Resources (AFNR) Content Standards included adding the management of personal finances to the Career Ready Practices content standards. Even so, teaching financial literacy to students has been, and continues to be, a difficult proposition for SBAE teachers (Foster, 1986; Layfield & Dobbins, 2002; Miller & Scheid, 1984; Sorensen et al., 2014; Toombs et al., 2020).

One issue related to teaching financial literacy in SBAE has been the lack of emphasis placed on teaching it, as it remains a high inservice need of all teachers (Sorensen et al., 2014). Part of being an effective teacher is having the appropriate content and pedagogical knowledge necessary to effect student learning (Goodnough & Hung, 2008). Fortunately, teacher preparation programs can positively impact SBAE teachers’ ability to teach specific content (Rice & Kitchel, 2015). Teacher preparation programs are fundamental to teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge (Rice & Kitchel, 2015). For this study, understanding preservice SBAE teachers’ experience using AET can help us identify their perceived self-efficacy using the software, which is imperative to enhancing the interests of students in entrepreneurship and business management and increasing their financial literacy (Brown & Knobloch, 2022).


The AET program was released in 2007 as a data management system designed to assist SBAE instructors teach aspects of record keeping to students regarding their SAEs (The Agricultural Experience Tracker, 2017). Although numerous states have adopted AET as their primary data management system for FFA members, research continues to point to the fact that teachers are ill equipped for using it appropriately and need professional development (Ferand et al., 2020; Sorensen et al., 2014; Toombs et al., 2022). According to Aviles (2015), SBAE teachers found AET to be too complex and time consuming. Sorensen et al. (2014) found AET was one of the highest in-service needs of both early-career (i.e., those with less than six years of experience) and experienced agricultural education teachers (i.e., those with six or more years of experience) in Oregon. What is more, research has indicated that preservice teachers have a low amount of overall self-efficacy related to managing the financial data aspect (i.e., record books) of their students’ SAEs (Toombs et al., 2022), signifying a need for further inquiry in this field. As an interactive software for record keeping, Totenhagen et al. (2015) and Brown and Knobloch (2022) posited that the use of interactive learning experiences and curriculum integration are the best methods for delivering financial literacy content to students. Activities in AET such as the Personal Finance Lab, Practice AET Curriculum, and Agribusiness Management Resources provide SBAE teachers with the tools needed to teach financial literacy (AET, 2023b). Additionally, AET provides SBAE teachers with specific tools to assist in managing their chapter’s activities and students’ projects (AET, 2023a).

AET has been used nationwide by SBAE teachers and students to assist in the acquisition of record keeping skills in time and finance (Hanagriff, 2022). In 2021, more than 8,000 SBAE and FFA programs and 1.1 million SBAE students used AET to assist in tracking Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAEs), recording FFA activities, and creating and managing FFA award applications (Hanagriff, 2022). AET aligns with the three-circle model of agricultural education and was supported through the use of Perkins and state-curricular funding (The AET, 2023a). As a result, AET has been adopted by 91% of all SBAE and FFA Programs across the U.S. (Hanagriff, 2022). As such, it was recommended that teacher preparation programs prepare teachers to use resources, such as AET, to meet the goals of their students. The suggestion is imperative, as all teachers should be trained on how to access curricular resources and how to evaluate them for use with their students (Mercier, 2015). Despite the widespread adoption of AET by SBAE teachers across the country, little research existed regarding preservice teachers’ self-efficacy for using it. Additionally, research assessing teacher preparation programs’ ability to effectively prepare preservice teachers to instruct students in AET has been largely left out of the cannon of agricultural education research. With the heavy expectation to integrate AET into SBAE programs, what impact can a semester-long course have on students’ self-perceived and actual abilities to use it?

Theoretical Framework

Bandura’s (1977) self-efficacy theory guided the study. Self-efficacy is the belief a person has in his or her ability to perform a specific task or tasks (Bandura, 1977). It is advanced through the repetition of completing the task with the assistance of a mentor. Self-efficacy can increase with a person’s successes and decrease with their failures to complete the task (Wilson et al., 2020) and is largely dependent on an individual’s continual effort, devotion, and behavior toward completing the task (Walumbwa et al., 2011). Four sources impact a person’s self-efficacy (Bandura, 1994). These sources include mastery experiences, psychological arousal, vicarious experiences, and verbal persuasion. Mastery experiences provide the greatest opportunity for increased self-efficacy when individuals succeed at, or accomplish, a task. Vicarious experiences aid in improving self-efficacy when individuals are involved in the experience of observing others (i.e., models) successfully complete a task. Verbal persuasion is produced through encouragement and occurs when individuals are told they “. . . have what it takes to succeed” (Bandura, 1994, p. 3). Physiological arousal is related to how individuals react to the situations they encounter (Bandura, 1994). With the need to increase financial literacy among students across the U.S. school system, and the role SBAE teachers can play in creating such authentic learning opportunities and experiences, it was important to assess students who aspire to be SBAE teachers on their self-perceived and actual abilities to use AET.

Background of the Study, Purpose, and Objectives

Preservice students enroll in AGED 3203: Advising Agricultural Student Organizations and Supervising Experiential Learning during their junior year where they learn about various aspects of FFA and SAE. The course included laboratories where students engage with all aspects of the program, such as advising a local FFA Chapter, supervising student projects, and managing data through AET, as students log entries, produce reports, and complete award applications from fictitious data sets. These experiences were designed to prepare students for their future expectations as SBAE teachers once they enter the academy. As such, AGED 3203 sought to improve student knowledge and experiences related to financial literacy and data management using AET. The course description was as follows:

This course is designed to determine the resources and trends of local communities with respect to agricultural production and agribusiness. Emphasis will be placed on agricultural education program policies, FFA chapter advisement, planning and managing the instructional program, and the identification and completion of records and reports required of a teacher of agricultural education in Oklahoma. (Robinson, 2022, p. 1)

The larger aim of the course was to prepare preservice teachers for implementing effective FFA and SAE programs at the secondary school level. Such preparation includes teaching students to use AET to track their data in hopes of becoming financially literate. To do so, preservice teachers must feel efficacious at using AET. Yet, research has indicated that some people tend to overestimate their efficacy (Woolfolk Hoy & Spero, 2005). It may be possible others underestimate their efficacy. To support such a claim, Robinson and Edwards (2012) assessed the teaching self-efficacy of first-year traditionally and alternatively certified SBAE teachers. They found that traditionally certified teachers consistently outperformed their alternatively certified teaching counterparts when assessed by a third-party observer. Although their actual performance indicators were significantly higher statistically, their self-perceived ratings were lower when compared to their alternatively certified peers. We attributed this difference to the fact that alternatively certified teachers had not been prepared in pedagogy and as such did not know what they did not know about teaching (Robinson & Edwards, 2012). Therefore, this study sought to explore the self-perceived and actual efficacy of preservice SBAE teachers toward operating and managing student projects through AET. The study was guided by the following research objectives:

  1. Describe the personal characteristics of students enrolled in the course,
  2. Describe the perceived self-efficacy of preservice SBAE teachers to use AET for managing student projects; and
  3. Describe the abilities of preservice SBAE teachers to use and advise students in AET.


The study was approved by the Oklahoma State University (OSU) Institutional Review Board (IRB) on January 26, 2022. This manuscript was based on data presented at the meeting of the Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists (Blinded Authors, 2023). All students (N = 42) enrolled in the junior-levelAGED 3203 at OSU during Spring 2022 were invited to participate in the study. Participation in the study was voluntary and students’ final grade was not affected by their consent to participate or not. Links to the questionnaire were made accessible to the students through the Canvas learning management system for one class day for students to complete. The use of classroom announcements and text reminders were used to recruit participants.

Three points of data were collected. The first data collection point (n = 41) occurred Week 1, the second (n = 41) occurred Week 8, and the third (n = 32) occurred Week 16 (the beginning, middle, and end of the semester). Students completed a questionnaire using Qualtrics regarding their perceived self-efficacy for using AET along with three AET Quizizz assessments.

The questionnaire included personal characteristic questions and 22 statements regarding their perceived self-efficacy to perform various competencies in AET. Each competency statement was rated on a 5-point, Likert-type scale ranging from 1= Strongly Disagreeto 5 =Strongly Agree. Statements were derived from AET Quizizz assessments. Twenty-two complementary statements were developed to determine the perceived self-efficacy of the participants when using AET. For example, one question on the Quizizz asked, “As an FFA officer, where do you record your officer meetings and chapter meetings?” The complementary perceived self-efficacy statement was “Log FFA Activities.” Another Quizizz example was, “After logging into your AET, (blank) should be completed 100% before beginning any other entries.” The complementary perceived self-efficacy statement was, “Create a student AET profile.”

After completing the questionnaire to measure their perceived self-efficacy, the participants then completed three AET Quizizz assessments to measure their actual self-efficacy. The three AET Quizizz assessments addressed student knowledge of AET icons, financial applications, and record book terms. The questionnaire and three assessments were all taken at each data collection point – Weeks 1, 8, and 16.

Face and content validity were assessed by a panel of five experts. In total, our panel possessed 17 years of secondary agricultural education teaching experience, and 23 years of postsecondary agricultural education teaching experience. Further, four of the five members have used AET as secondary agricultural education teachers, and all five currently teach preservice teachers to use AET. A pilot study was not conducted; therefore, we admit that reliability was a limitation of the study. However, the items we used in the Quizziz were taken verbatim from the AET. As such, we chose to treat the reliability as being criterion-referenced (CRT). Because the test followed the eight methods of reliability for a CRT, according to Wiersma and Jurs (1990), we deemed the study reliable.

Descriptive statistics, including central modes of tendency (means and standard deviations) and variability (frequencies and percentages), were used to analyze the data. Personal characteristics included student type (traditional four-year or transfer), FFA degree(s) obtained, FFA office(s) held, and years of FFA experience. Student perception data were analyzed by recording the mean and standard deviation for the group at each of the three data collection points. The change in mean scores between observations one and three were calculated to determine the change in perceptions from the beginning to end of the semester.


Objective one sought to describe the personal characteristics of the students enrolled in AGED 3203. The personal characteristics of the students are presented in Table 1. One-half (f = 21) were traditional, four-year students with the other one-half (f = 20) being transfer students. Thirty-six (85.71%) of the students had received their Greenhand FFA Degree, and 16 (38.10%) had received their American FFA Degree. Thirty-two (76.19%) had served as a Chapter FFA Officer, two (4.76%) had served as a District FFA Officer, and three (7.14%) had served as a State FFA Officer. Seven (16.67%) had been a State Proficiency Finalist while 19 (45.24%) had been an FFA member for five years, and 15 (35.71%) had been a FFA member for four years (see Table 1).

Table 1

Personal and Professional Characteristics of Participants (N = 42)

Objective two sought to describe the perceived self-efficacy of preservice SBAE teachers to use AET for managing student projects. Mean scores were compared across observations. To determine overall change of students’ self-perceived efficacy in AET, mean difference (MD) scores were computed by subtracting the mean score in Data Collection 1 from the mean score in Data Collection 3 (see Table 2). In all, student perceptions ranged from the real limits of disagree to agree on all statements in Data Collection 1 and increased from neither agree or disagree to strongly agree in Data Collection 3.

Table 2

Perceived Self-Efficacy of Students (N = 42)

The highest mean score for students in Data Collection 1 was Log FFA Activities (M = 3.71, SD = 0.89), followed by Enter Journal Entries (M = 3.68, SD = 0.92), and Enter Financial Entries (M = 3.66, SD = 0.90). Advise students in Completing National Chapter Award Applications (M = 2.33, SD = 1.03) was the statement that had the lowest mean score for Data Collection 1 (see Table 2).

Regarding Data Collection 2, Enter Journal Entries (M = 4.36, SD = 0.61) had the largest mean score, followed by Enter Financial Entries (M = 4.29, SD = 0.76), and Create a Student AET Profile (M = 4.26, SD = 0.62). Advise Students in Completing National Chapter Award Applications (M = 3.19, SD = 1.18) was the statement that had the lowest mean score of Data Collection 2 (see Table 2).

Regarding Data Collection 3, Enter Journal Entries (M = 4.53, SD = 0.56) had the largest mean score, followed by Log FFA Activities (M = 4.34, SD = 0.59), and Enter Financial Entries (M = 4.25, SD = 0.83). Advise students in Completing National Chapter Award Applications (M = 3.59, SD = 1.31) was the statement that had the lowest mean score of Data Collection 3 (see Table 2).

Students experienced the greatest amount of perceived growth in the areas of National Chapter Award Applications (MD = 1.26), Use the Market Manager (MD = 1.23), and Advise Students’ Research SAEs (MD = 1.21). The least amount of perceived growth occurred in the ability to use AET to Log Community Service Activities (MD = 0.58), Enter Financial Entries (MD = 0.59), and Create a Student AET Profile (MD = 0.60). All statements experienced a positive increase in student self-efficacy mean scores from Data Collection 1 to Data Collection 2. The majority of the statements also experienced an increase from Data Collection 2 to Data Collection 3. However, Enter Financial Entries, Create a Student AET Profile, and Using the Breeding Herd Manager all experienced slight decreases in mean scores from Data Collection 2 to Data Collection 3, but these values were still greater than their mean scores detected in Data Collection 1 (see Table 2).

Objective three sought to determine students’ actual ability to identify features and use AET as a curricular resource for SAEs across the semester. The AET Quizizz were used to measure student knowledge of the data management program. Mean scores were compared across observations for each assessment as well as cumulatively (see Table 3).

Table 3

Actual Ability of Participants to Identify and Use Features within AET (N = 42)

At the time of Data Collection 1 students had a cumulative score of 57.40 (see Table 3). Regarding the quiz components, they collectively scored 62.20 on the Record Book Terms, 57.07 on AET Icons, and 55.80 on Financial Applications.

During Data Collection 2, students increased their cumulative score to a 65.93 (see Table 3). In the individual quiz areas, participants scored 74.86 on the Record Book Terms, 70.48 on the AET Icons, and 57.19 on the Financial Applications.

During Data Collection 3, students had a cumulative score of 65.02 (see Table 3). For the quiz components, they scored 69.49 on the Record Book Terms, 69.20 on the AET Icons, and 59.10 on the Financial Applications.

Students’ actual knowledge of AET Icons, Financial Applications, and Record Book Terms increased between Observations 1 and 2, with Record Book Terms and AET Icons both increasing by more than ten percent. However, during Data Collection 3, Record Book Terms and AET Icons exhibited a decrease in students’ actual ability to recall terms and identify icons. Although slight, actual ability to determine correct Financial Applications increased throughout all three observations. Cumulatively, students’ actual ability to use AET increased from Data Collection 1 to Data Collection 2, and then slightly decreased when evaluated in Data Collection 3. The greatest growth of AET Quiz Components from Week 1 to Week 16 was realized for AET Icons (MD = 12.13). In comparison, Financial Applications experienced the least amount of change (MD = 3.30) in students’ actual ability throughout the semester-long course experience.


Students failed to reach a level mastery of using AET Financial Applications across the 16-week instruction period.Although students’ actual ability to determine Financial Applications in AET increased across the three observations, their mean scores were still below a 60%, indicating a failing grade. Unfortunately, students were only able to increase their overall knowledge of AET by a total of eight and one-half points (a grade of D) from Week 1 to Week 16. Simply stated, participants were not proficient in the financial applications of AET, which is concerning considering the importance of teaching financial literacy in the current climate (Totenhagen et al., 2015). These results also showed that students were not able to master a core piece of the course’s purpose which was to identify and complete records and reports required of SBAE teachers using programs required in Oklahoma (Robinson, 2022). In addition to failing to meet the purpose of the course, these scores also show that many of the participants were unable to appropriately use AET as a chapter management tool (AET, 2023a). These poor scores were also concerning as fewer states look to add economics and personal finance courses to their graduation requirements (CEE, 2022). These findings also support those of Aviles (2015) who found that the areas of financial applications were areas where many struggled when utilizing the tools of AET.

Roughly one-half of the students began their undergraduate education at OSU. Three (7%) students were not FFA members in high school. In addition, 21% of the students did not receive their State FFA Degree, and only 17% had been a finalist for a State FFA Proficiency Award. Therefore, it is possible that a high number of students failed to have adequate experience with AET as high school students prior to this course. As such, it might be unfair to expect these students to obtain mastery (Bandura, 1994) in AET after one class. In addition, this lack of experience in the use of AET could have an impact on pedagogical content knowledge specifically (Rice & Kitchel, 2015).

Students’ self-perceived abilities to use AET increased across all areas throughout the semester, which supports Bandura’s (1977) assertion that self-efficacy is solidified through rich experiences of performing a particular task over time. Increases were detected across the semester in all 22 statements, indicating that the students improved their efficacy for using the software and advising student SAEs because of the course. The term Advising Students in Completing National Chapter Award Applications was rated lowest in self-perceived ability by students in all three observations. However, it was also the statement that experienced the greatest amount of overall mean difference change throughout the semester.

Students’ actual abilities also increased overall when compared across the three-point time series; however, the growth might not be sustained long term, as scores showed a decrease between observations two and three in comparison to those noted between observations one and two. It is possible that the results might be attributed to the timing of the presentation of content related to AET. Specifically, aspects of AET were emphasized heavily during the first one-half (eight weeks) of the semester, and then tapered off toward the end of the semester. The more elevated scores detected from Data Collection 1 to Data Collection 2 may be due to the recency effect of the emphasis of AET during that time frame.


The study was limited to the delivery of AET content and generalizability of its results. An assumption was made that the same content and activities featuring AET would be taught and implemented each week by the three teaching assistants charged with delivering content to their respective laboratories. Although weekly meetings were held throughout the semester to attempt to maintain fidelity and consistency of such, differences in teaching assistants’ personalities, teaching styles, and experiences using AET as former SBAE teachers themselves undoubtedly existed and could have impacted the study’s findings. participants’ prior experience in AET was not collected, and their experience may have impacted the findings. Therefore, we acknowledge the results of the study could be limited by these factors. Moreover, the study included a convenient sample of students enrolled in a required teacher preparation course offered at the junior level at one institution.

Given the results cannot be generalized to all preservice SBAE teachers across the country, it is recommended additional research on the self-efficacy and actual ability of preservice teachers to implement AET is conducted with a larger population of preservice teachers. We recommend other preservice institutions replicate this study to determine if the findings hold true across other university settings. We also recommend that correlational studies ensue to assess students’ abilities to effectively use AET based on their involvement in FFA activities at the secondary school level. Further research also should investigate whether the use of AET does in fact increase financial literacy. It is recommended that a financial literacy assessment be used to determine if the use of AET, SBAE’s version of a simulation-based method, improved financial literacy of the participants (Levant et al., 2016). These future studies should identify the effectiveness of the training resources provided by AET to instruct students in proper data management and record keeping strategies.

Regarding the course content, students need additional experience with the statement: Advising students in completing National Chapter Award Applications, as students consistently rated it as the lowest mean value in each of the three observations. Perhaps the reason for this poor rating was due to students not currently having the opportunity to work with actual data from FFA members. Students be paired with a mentor teacher and FFA members in SBAE programs so that they can experience a richer connection to AET and obtain real-world experience with advising students who are working on award applications as part of their SAE program. Providing dedicated time for students in this course to interact with FFA members while using AET would likely increase their readiness to learn and afford concrete experiences for preservice teachers to learn the content while using actual student data and working with a mentor teacher.

Further, it was important to determine the impact of this preparation on students as they enter the teaching profession. Are they better prepared for integrating AET into their classrooms and FFA programs having learned about and used it for multiple weeks as part of their preservice preparation? Or, is readiness to learn the criterion absent or minimized during this phase of their preparation? Regardless, AET should be a point of emphasis during the student teaching internship and again, as professional development, after students have accepted positions during their first year of teaching. Conducting a longitudinal trend study would provide comparisons between perceived and actual self-efficacy of teachers based on actual projects and experiences of their students and their readiness to learn such content. Finally, regarding teaching styles of graduate teaching assistants, a quasi-experimental study should be conducted in which different pedagogies are used to instruct students in the use of AET. A comparison of such across different laboratory settings could aid in identifying the most effective method of instruction for teaching students the importance of using AET and how to do so most effectively. Regarding states that do not use or require AET in the agricultural education program, it was recommended that a similar study be conducted to understand the perceived and actual self-efficacy of preservice SBAE teachers in using the software used within that state.


The most effective ways of teaching young people to become financially independent, literate, and to make good investment decisions is an important topic that should continue to be discussed and considered by SBAE teachers. The current study provides additional insight into the practice of preparing SBAE teachers. The timing of when to teach certain topics to students is an imperative task for all teacher preparation programs. Perhaps students simply were not ready to learn all aspects of AET during the spring semester of their junior year. Based on the findings of this study, it is imperative that we, as a teacher preparation program, implement aspects of AET into other preservice courses, where appropriate, to provide students additional opportunities and iterations necessary for mastery experiences (Bandura, 1994). It is possible the students in this study experienced the largest growth in mean difference of perceived ability to complete National Chapter Award applications because of a project where they plan out mock events. Therefore, growth is observed in the preservice courses where opportunities to learn through doing is possible. In addition, regarding the practice of teaching SBAE, the state office of career and technical education in Oklahoma should be alerted to the actual competency and self-efficacy levels of the new teachers in the state so that appropriate professional development may be provided once these students enter the teaching ranks. Finally, it is entirely possible that students overestimate their abilities to perform certain tasks (Woolfolk Hoy & Spero, 2005), especially when interfacing with that content over the course of a semester. Therefore, it is necessary that continued follow-up training and support exist to ensure that perceived self-efficacy eventually leads to actual competence.


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Determining the Needs of School-Based Agricultural Education Teachers in Oklahoma

Kayla N. Marsh, Oklahoma State University, Kayla.marsh@okstate.edu

Kris R. L. Rankin III, Oklahoma State University, Kris.rankin@okstate.edu

Christopher J. Eck, Oklahoma State University, Chris.eck@okstate.edu

Nathan A. Smith, Oklahoma State University, Nathan.smith@okstate.edu

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Teacher attrition has reached critical levels in the US and globally, with one in every four teachers not remaining in the profession past year three. For 32 years, research surrounding school-based agricultural education (SBAE) teacher needs has been studied, finding that program management, administrative tasks, public relations, SAE development, instructional technology, behavior management, and work-life balance have been recurring needs, yet nothing has been done to proactively address these needs to increase job satisfaction. One-size-fits-all professional development, training, and workshops are ineffective at providing the human capital development needed to meet these needs. The Conceptual Model of Support for SBAE Teachers guided this study in determining the current needs of SBAE teachers in Oklahoma through the distribution of a 42-item instrument. Thirty-six of the 42 items achieved a mean score indicating a need. A statistically significant difference was found between SBAE teachers’ self-reported need scores based on the personal and professional characteristics of participants. It is recommended that purposeful professional development in-service and practical resources be developed to address the unique and specific needs of SBAE teachers.

Introduction and Review of Literature

Teacher attrition has reached critical levels in the US and globally, with one in every four teachers not remaining in the profession in the past year three (OECD, 2021). Attrition rates increase for teaching positions with greater responsibilities like special education, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and agricultural education (Nguyen & Springer, 2019). Since 1917, school-based agricultural education (SBAE) has reported a lack of teachers to meet program demands (Eck & Edwards, 2019). Further exacerbating the concerns was the large percentage of SBAE teachers approaching retirement and early-career SBAE teachers not remaining in the profession to retirement (Smith et al., 2018). Begging the question: How do we make actionable changes to this trend and increase SBAE teacher career retention?

For 32 years, research surrounding SBAE teacher needs has found program management, administrative tasks, public relations, SAE development, instructional technology, behavior management, and work-life balance as recurring needs, yet nothing has been done to address these needs to increase job satisfaction proactively (DiBenedetto et al.,2018; Doss et al., 2022; Shoulders et al., 2021). These historic gaps in specific human capital skills and community networks have been further compounded by the stress and anxiety SBAE teachers face while attempting to manage a complete program (Marsh et al., 2023; Shoulders et al., 2021).

Nationally, school district policies have adopted measures to alternatively and emergency-certify teachers to help alleviate the pressure of filling positions with quality professionals (NCES, 2018; US Department of Education [USDOE], 2016). Emergency certified teachers represent 1% of the teaching population in Oklahoma, as this number has risen from 32 individuals in 2011 to over 3,000 with emergency credentials in 2019 (NCES, 2018; Oklahoma State Department of Education [Oklahoma DOE], 2022; US Department of Education, 2016). Leaving novice emergency teachers facing barriers that limit their effectiveness if they do not receive content, pedagogy, and experience before being placed in the classroom (Mobra & Hamlin, 2020).

Alternatively and emergency certified teachers can be presented with unique challenges, just as other personal and professional characteristics of SBAE teachers contribute to differences in an individual’s level of need (Marsh et al., 2023). For example, female SBAE teachers have identified SAE and FFA tasks to be high-stress responsibilities, with 60% finding that proficiency application preparation and 57% finding that FFA Banquet planning were high to very highly stressful events (King et al., 2013). In addition, classroom responsibilities like reports and paperwork were found to be highly stressful by 57% of female SBAE teachers (King et al., 2013). Teacher age and career tenure seem to reduce the stress level reported by female SBAE teachers, although Smalley and Smith (2017) found time to be a major stressor for individuals trying to balance work and life responsibilities.

According to Huberman’s (1989) teacher career cycle model, the early-career, mid-career, and late-career phases have distinctive characteristics that influence teachers’ needs. Early-career SBAE teachers are characterized by survival and discovery, motivating them to abandon their personal boundaries to succeed in the profession and limiting their work-life/balance, leaving them to struggle in silence (Huberman, 1989; Steffy & Wolfe, 2001; Traini et al., 2020). While the mid-career phase is the most extensive of career phases, characterized by stabilization, experimentation, reassessment, and self-doubt influenced by teachers’ reflection on their progression within the profession. Obstacles identified during the mid-career phase include lack of time, work-life balance, content and curriculum resources, professional development, and networking to improve and energize practice (Huberman, 1989; Smalley & Smith, 2017; Steffy & Wolfe, 2001). Late-career teachers have been characterized by serenity, conservatism, or disengagement, with the need to find meaningful ways to engage and challenge themselves to continue growing (Huberman, 1989; NAAE, 2015; Steffy & Wolfe, 2001). These personal and professional characteristics make each SBAE teacher unique, resulting in varying needs to be successfully retained within the profession (Marsh et al., 2023). Furthermore, Klassen and Chiu (2010) found that one-size-fits-all professional development, training, and workshops are ineffective at providing the human capital development needed to meet these needs. Considering the disparity between SBAE teachers’ unique needs, how do we adequately support these teachers to retain them throughout their careers?

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

The conceptual model of support for SBAE teachers was developed to provide a human lens for evaluating 21st Century program needs (Marsh et al., 2023; see Figure 1). The framework (see Figure 1) integrates Maslow’s hierarchy for teachers (Fisher & Royster, 2016), the three-component model for agricultural education (FFA, n.d.), and the effective teaching model for SBAE teachers (Eck et al., 2019), providing researchers a lens to evaluate the level of SBAE teachers needs within their professional roles and responsibilities to provide opportunities to develop their career-specific human capital (i.e., education, training, skills, and experiences), ultimately increasing job satisfaction and career retention (Eck et al., 2019; Heckman, 2000; Smith, 2010). Evaluating SBAE teachers’ individual needs based on personal and professional characteristics can influence professional development opportunities, resources, tools, and skills being developed and implemented to make a more impactful change and satisfy the needs of SBAE teachers (Marsh et al., 2023; DiBenedetto et al., 2018; Klassen & Chiu, 2010).  

Figure 1 

Conceptual Model of Support for School-Based Agricultural Education Teachers  


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Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of this study was to determine the current needs of SBAE teachers in Oklahoma. The research questions guiding this study were:

1) What are the 21st Century needs of SBAE teachers in Oklahoma, and

2) Do needs differ based on SBAE teachers’ personal and professional characteristics?  


SBAE teachers in Oklahoma attending area Chapter Officer Leadership Training (COLT) conferences hosted by the Oklahoma FFA Association (n = 372) served as the accessible population (Privitera, 2020) for this study. The instrument was developed utilizing a previously validated list of 42-items representing the perceived needs of 21st Century SBAE teachers. The instrument was established by an expert panel of SBAE supporters using a three-round Delphi approach (Marsh et al., 2023). The instrument was adapted to include a four-point Likert-type scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (4), based on the recommendations of (Marsh et al., 2023). SBAE teachers attending the COLT conferences were asked to scan a QR code to complete the survey questionnaire, of which 121 teachers completed the instrument, resulting in a 34% response rate.

SPSS Version 25 was used for the data analysis of this study. Data were exported to an SPSS compatible file that would allow for descriptive statistics and the analysis of variance (ANOVA) tests to be run comparing different variables from the study. The main comparable variables considered for analysis were (1) gender, (2) career stage, (3) total need score, and (4) need score mean. An ANOVA and normality of distribution were conducted on the data, resulting in not normally distributed data with unequal variances. Therefore, a Kruskal-Wallis test and a Welch test were run to identify if the significance of these findings would hinder the data usage for ANOVA tests (Field, 2018). Both tests were found not to be significant for the gender and career phase, indicating that the data was fit to have ANOVA tests and the Tukey-Kramer Post Hoc analysis conducted (Field, 2018). Regional responses and certification held by the participants indicated unequal tests of normality and homogeneity of variances, indicating the need to run the Games-Howell Post Hoc test to adjust the data for these unequal data points (Field, 2018).

The personal and professional characteristics of participants are outlined in Table 1. Career phases were broken down into early (1 to 6 years; n = 60), mid (7 to 15 years; n = 30), and late-career (16 or more years; n = 38), based on the recommendations of Huberman (1989).

Table 1 
Personal and Professional Characteristics of Participants (n = 121)

GenderFemale 4537% 
 Male 76 62%
Career phaseEarly Career (0 – 6 years) 5948% 
 Mid-Career (7 – 15 years) 3125% 
 Late Career (16 – 39 years)  31 25%
Certification pathwayTraditional 108108
 Alternative 1111
 Emergency 22
Region of OklahomaRegion I 3226%
 Region II 4335%
 Region III 119%
 Region IV 2218%
 Region V 1310%

For the total need score, the 42 items were each ranked on a four-point scale of agreement, with all items being weighted equally, as McDonald (1997) recommended equally weighted summative scores to be optimal when analyzing multiple components, as no weighted method can provide a better estimate. Therefore, total need scores had a potential range of 42 (little or no need) to a maximum of 168 (high need). It is recommended that individual item mean scores be considered as follows: 1.0 to 1.5 (not a need), 1.6 to 2.0 (low need), 2.1 to 2.5 (somewhat need), 2.6 to 3.0 (moderate need), 3.1 to 3.5 (high need), and 3.6 to 4.0 (essential need).

ANOVA tests and post-hoc analysis consisting of (1) gender v. total need score mean, (2) teaching certification vs. total need score mean, (3) career phase v. total need score mean, and (4) Oklahoma teacher association region vs. total need score mean were conducted to address the second research question. Two Post-hoc analyses were used in the ANOVA comparisons. A Tukey-Kramer test was used when group sizes were found to be normally distributed and have equal variances (i.e., gender and career phase), while the Games-Howell test was conducted for group sizes that did not have normally distributed data and was found to have unequal variances to account for the disparities in the normality and variances of the data (e.g., teaching certification and Oklahoma teaching association region), allowing for a more accurate analysis of the data when comparing abnormal group sizes to different variables being studied (Field, 2018). 


Research question one sought to determine the current needs of SBAE teachers in Oklahoma. With an overall mean of 3.16 across the 42-items, there is a perceived need from Oklahoma SBAE teachers (see Table 1). Thirty-six of the 42-items had a mean need score of 3.00 or higher (i.e., moderate to high need), with the remaining six items falling below 3.0 mean score (moderate need). The identified items representing the greatest need included (1) access to essential resources (3.50), (2) curriculum resources (3.50), (3) support from local school administration (3.48), (4) work-life balance (3.46) and (5) respect (3.37) with a statistical power of 0.99. The effect size for the top five identified items ranged from 0.50 to 0.44. The lowest perceived needs included training on effective online delivery techniques (2.91),support for hybrid teaching (2.87), pedagogical content knowledge (2.87), diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training (2.78), and lesson planning training (2.72). The effect size of the bottom five identified items ranged from 0.20 to 0.11.         

Table 2 
Current Needs of SBAE Teachers In Oklahoma (n = 121)  

Identified NeedMSD
Identified Need  MSD
Access to essential resources  3.50.55
Curriculum resources   3.50.59
Support from local school administration    3.48.70
Work-life balance    3.46.67
Respect    3.37.75
Purposeful professional development   3.34.57
Assistance/resources for training FFA teams  3.34.61
Parent support    3.33.69
State level support   3.32.64
Community support    3.31.72
Classroom/Laboratory Support    3.30.57
FFA Support    3.26.66
Identified Need  MSD
Skills and techniques for working with students with special needs   3.26.57
Resources to help students overcome various levels of public speaking anxiety   3.26.65
Assistance/resource to develop FFA officer teams  3.26.61
Relevant evaluations that reflect their complete program   3.23.73
Their planning period (i.e., not being required to cover other classes/duties during this time)  3.22.82
Resources to recruit traditional and non-traditional ag students   3.18.72
Agricultural mechanics skills   3.17.62
Resources to integrate experiential learning opportunities for students   3.16.63
Resources for awarding and recognizing SAEs   3.16.73
Resources on FFA integration within a complete program (i.e., Program of Activities, National Chapter Award, Proficiency Awards)    3.15.71
Accessibility training   3.14.67
Laboratory safety resources   3.13.68
Classroom management skills   3.12.66
Agricultural content knowledge   3.12.71
Greenhouse management skills   3.12.75
Support for teacher mental health    3.11.77
Training of “SAE for ALL” implementation   3.11.75
Support to aligning lab facilities to program curricula   3.09.68
SAE Support    3.08.53
Tools to address student mental health issues   3.07.70
Support in providing equal opportunities to all students   3.04.72
Support to identify student mental health issues    3.03.67
Emotional health support     3.01.78
Laboratory management training    3.00.72
Training to implement a variety of formative evaluation techniques   2.98.66
Training on effective Online delivery techniques    2.91.76
Support for hybrid teaching (i.e., in-person, virtual, simultaneous)   2.87.84
Pedagogical content knowledge   2.87.77
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training   2.78.90
Lesson planning training    2.72.88

Note. Strongly Disagree = 1, Disagree = 2, Agree = 3, and Strongly Agree = 4. 

The second research question aimed to determine if SBAE teachers’ needs differed based on their personal and professional characteristics. Composite needs scores had a potential range from a low of 42 to a high of 168, which were compared to each of the personal and professional characteristics (i.e., gender, career phase, certification pathway, and regions of Oklahoma).

Females (n = 45) had a higher mean need score of 135.7 compared to male respondents (n = 76) at 117.5. This finding was statistically significant, with the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval for female respondents at 127.3 compared to the upper bound for male respondents at 125.4. Due to the gap in the identified need score range between males and females, there was a statistically significant difference in the need scores between genders F (2,150) = 122.034, p<.05. Four of the top five needs items were found to be similar for both males and females, with females identifying purposeful professional development and males identifying respect and their fifth need (see Table 3).

Table 3
Identified Needs by Gender (n =121)  

GenderIdentified NeedMSD
Female RespondentsSupport from local school administration  3.48.72
 Access to essential resources 3.44.54
 Work-life balance  3.44.62
 Curriculum resources 3.43.62
 Purposeful professional development 3.40.53
Males RespondentsCurriculum resources 3.54.57
 Access to essential resources  3.52.52
 Work-life balance 3.50.64
 Support from local school administration 3.47.70
 Respect 3.44.72

Analysis by career phase showed that early-career teachers had a higher mean need score of 131.8 and a need score range of 123.4 to 140.1, followed by mid-career teachers with a mean score of 127.7 and a need score range of 116.2 to 139.2, and late-career teachers with a mean score of 106.4 and a need range of 92.8 to 119.9. It was found that the maximum need score of the late-career teacher and the minimum score of the early-career teachers had a gap of 3.5 points. Due to this gap in need score means, early-career teachers were found to be statistically different when compared to late-career teachers (F (3,149) = 74.389, p < .05). Comparing early-career to mid-career and mid-career to late-career showed no statistical difference.

All career phases identified access to essential resources and curriculum resources in the top five identified needs. The early-career teachers had further overlapping identified need for work-life balance being shared with mid-career teachers and support from local school administration shared with late-career teachers. A total of nine unique needs items were found as the top five needs regardless of career phase (see Table 4)

Table 4
Identified Needs by Career Phase (n = 121)

Career PhaseIdentified Need  MSD
Early-careerWork-life balance  3.58.67
 Access to essential resources 3.57.53 
 Curriculum resources  3.56.56 
 Support from local school administration 3.52.75 
 Classroom/Laboratory support 3.47.53 
Mid-careerCurriculum resources  3.61.49 
 Work-life balance 3.51.56 
 Access to essential resources  3.45.56 
 Purposeful professional development 3.41.50 
 State level support 3.38.61 
Late-careerSupport from local school administration  3.54.62 
 Access to essential resources 3.38.49 
 Assistance/resources for training FFA teams  3.30.53 
 Respect 3.30.79
 Curriculum resources 3.29.69

Further analysis was warranted to identify the top five needs of the three teaching certifications held by the participants (see Table 5). Traditionally certified teachers were found to have a total need score mean of 125.02 with a range from 90.00 to 168.00 points. Alternatively, certified teachers were found to have a total need core mean of 126.58 with a range from 116.00 to 168.00 points. Emergency certified teachers had a total need score mean of 138.00, ranging from 136.00 to 140.00 points (see Table 5). After analysis of the one-way ANOVA, it was found that differences in total need score mean and the certification type held by the participants were not statistically significantly different (F (1,1) = .540, p > .05).

Analysis by teacher certification pathway showed all participants addressed their top five needs between agree and strongly agree. Emergency certified teachers indicated strongly agree for their top five identified needs. However, it should be noted that there were only two emergency certified teachers among the participants, indicating both participants strongly agreed (a score of 4 on the instrument) for their top five needs. Two items were found to have been a top five need within all three certification groups i.e., support from local school administration and work-life balance. An additional two items were found in at least two certification groups, i.e., respect (alternatively and emergency certified teachers) and access to essential resources (alternative and traditionally certified teachers; see Table 5).

Table 5
Identified Needs by Certification Pathway (n = 121)

Certification PathwayIdentified Need  MSD
Alternatively CertifiedSupport from local school administration  3.63.50
 Their planning period (i.e., not being required to cover other classes/duties) 3.54.52
 Respect  3.54.52
 Work-life balance 3.54.52
 Access to essential resources A 3.45.52
Emergency CertifiedCommunity support  4.00.00
 Parent support 4.00.00
 Support from local school administration  4.00.00
 Respect 4.00.00
 Work-life balance 4.00.00
Traditionally CertifiedCurriculum resources  3.51.55
 Access to essential resources 3.50.52
 Work-life balance  3.46.64
 Support from local school administration 3.45.72
 Assistance/resources for training FFA teams 3.34.63

Note. Alternatively certified teachers were teachers who previously held a college degree and passed the Oklahoma agricultural education teaching examination. Emergency certified teachers were self-identified to have been emergency-certified based upon Oklahoma Department of Education standards. Traditionally certified teachers were teachers who attended an institution(s) that prepared agricultural education teacher educators and successfully met all requirements for degree completion and teacher certification in agricultural education. AAlternatively certified participants identified eight needs with the same need score mean and standard deviation. The fifth item listed in Table 5 was the first identified in instrument order, followed by parent support, classroom/laboratory support, support in providing equal opportunities to all students, agricultural mechanics skills, resources for awarding and recognizing SAEs, resources to help students overcome various levels of public speaking anxiety and assistance/resource to develop FFA officer teams.

The five regions represent the Oklahoma FFA association and are identified by their geographical location within the state. Region I had 32 responses to the instrument with a total need score mean of 126.50, while Region II had 43 responses and a total need score mean of 126.60, Region III with 11 responses and a total need score mean of 118.08, Region IV with 22 responses and a total need score mean of 133.91, and Region V with 13 responses with a total need score mean of 137.77, respectively. After analysis of the regional total need score means and performing a one-way ANOVA test, it was found that the regional total mean need scores were not statistically significantly different between the regions (F (2,2) = 5.405 p > .05).

Four items (i.e., access to essential resources, curriculum resources, support from local school administration, and work-life balance) were found to have been identified as a top five need in at least four of the regions. Three items (i.e., respect, community support, and accessibility training) were found to have been identified as a top five need in two of the regions. Nineteen unique items were found as a top five need item in at least one Oklahoma region (see Table 6).

Table 6
Identified Needs by Region of Oklahoma (n = 121)

Region of OklahomaIdentified Need  MSD
Region ICurriculum resources  3.71.45
 Access to essential resources 3.56.50
 Parent support  3.53.71
 Support from local school administration 3.46.76
 State level support 3.43.71
Region IIAccess to essential resources  3.46.50
 Work-life balance 3.45.67
 Support from local school administration  3.41.73
 Respect 3.38.62
 Purposeful professional development 3.37.57
Region IIIWork-life balance  3.45.68
 Support from local school administration 3.36.67
 Access to essential resources  3.27.46
 Respect 3.27.90
 Community SupportA 3.18.40
Region IVSupport from local school administration  3.81.39
 Curriculum resources 3.66.48
 Access to essential resources  3.63.49
 Work-life balance 3.63.58
 Community support 3.61.49
Region VClassroom/Laboratory support  3.53.51
 Work-life balance 3.53.51
 Tools to address student mental health issues  3.53.51
 FFA support 3.46.51
 Skills and techniques for working with students with special needsB 3.46.51

Note. ARegion III participants had seven items identified with the same need score mean. The fifth item listed in the table above had the lowest standard deviation, followed by 1. their planning period (i.e., not being required to cover other classes/duties), 2. curriculum resources, 3. agricultural content knowledge, 4. resources to help students overcome various levels of public speaking anxiety, 5. assistance/resource to develop FFA officer teams, and 6. assistance/resource for training FFA teams. BRegion V participants had three items with the same need score mean and standard deviation. The fifth item listed in Table 6 is the first identified in instrument order, followed by 1. accessibility training and 2. curriculum resources.

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

Twenty-nine of the 42 items achieved a mean indicating a high need (i.e., mean score above 3.1) for SBAE teachers in Oklahoma, the remaining 13 items resulted in a moderate need. The top two items included access to essential resources, and curriculum resources, aligning to an ongoing need for content, curriculum, and practical resources to support their programs (Doss et al., 2022). The needs identified by SBAE teachers also reflected the importance of relationships with parents, administration, community, and state-level supporters in the surrounding school community to provide resources and meet program needs (Marsh et al., 2023; Doss et al., 2022). In addition, items such as support from local school administration, work-life balance, and respect represent the human need to establish relationships, boundaries, and a level of respect within their professional role as SBAE teachers (Marsh et al., 2023; Shoulders et al., 2021). Perhaps to better address the subsistent and security needs (Marsh et al., 2023) of current Oklahoma SBAE teachers, a more effective lens is necessary to create actionable change?

A statistically significant difference was found in SBAE teachers’ self-reported need scores based on personal and professional characteristics of participants (F (3,149) = 74.389, p < .05). Early-career SBAE teachers participants corresponded with a higher percentage of female SBAE teachers in the Oklahoma, which represented the population of participants with higher self-reported need scores. While this finding was statistically significant, it also speaks to the practical significance of developing professional development training, curriculum resources, and instructional tools that meet the individual personal and professional characteristics of Oklahoma SBAE teachers. Further connecting to the need to evaluate teachers through a human lens using the conceptual model of support for SBAE Teachers (Marsh et al., 2023).

When considering the needs identified by personal and professional characteristic subgroups, males had a grand mean need score lower than female respondents, but males’ need scores for the top five items were higher than that of the female respondents. This suggests that the top items identified were significant high needs impacting males in the profession. Males differed in the top five responses from females with respect to replacing purposeful professional development. Perhaps this was an impacting factor for males not entering or being retained in the profession because it was no longer aligning with their individual human needs to feel respected within the profession (Marsh et al., 2023). In addition, female respondents reported a higher grand mean score reflecting their increase in identified needs, which was supported by the fifth item, purposeful professional development, as the recognition of future human capital development to support their practice within the profession was essential (Eck et al., 2019; Marsh et al., 2023).

Early-career teachers were found to have statically significant needs when compared to the needs of late-career teachers by the grand mean score, but they still shared three of the top five needs, including access to essential resources, curriculum resources, and support from local school administration. Traini et al. (2020) concluded that early-career teachers’ stress as they strive to achieve stability in their personal and professional careers and struggle in silence, but the review of identified needs by career phases suggests that they share needs with mid and late-career SBAE teachers. Even with early-career teachers responding with a greater need than mid and late-career teachers, perhaps connecting early-career teachers with mid and late-career teachers could improve connectedness and community by sharing resources and fostering mentorships. Mid-career SBAE teachers had the most overlap between early and late-career teachers, aligning with Huberman’s (1989) teacher career cycle model that this was a critical phase for providing engagement, professional development, and resources targeted to support their career retention.

Reviewing identified needs by certification pathway, emergency certified teachers responded with a need score mean of 4.0 and a standard deviation of 0.00 for community support, parent support, local administration support, respect, and work-life balance. The findings align with Mobra and Hamlin (2020) that emergency-certified teachers lack the support and resources needed to improve their practice and overcome the barriers to becoming successful in the classroom. Further, the needs identified by emergency and alternately certified teachers were relational focus suggesting a need for belonging within the profession through community, mentorship, and networking (Marsh et al., 2023). Interestingly, traditionally certified teachers identified as needing resources and training FFA teams may be a product of their own FFA interests, self-efficacy in pedagogy, or interest in engaging and improving leadership teams and events.

The regions of the Oklahoma had similarly identified the top five needs for access to essential resources, curriculum resources, support from local school administration, and work-life balance, which was also reflected by the overall top five identified items, suggesting that the regional and state identified needs align and that no region had a significant gap of resources. This was further confirmed by the statistical power of the study 0.99, and the lack of significant differences between regions (F (2,2) = 5.405 p > .05). Unique to region V was the identified need for skills and techniques for working with students with special needs, whichmay represent a specific gap between schools and school districts within the region.

Practical recommendations from this study included targeting the resource, curriculum, and professional development needs of SBAE teachers based on their unique personal and professional characteristics due to the differences found between female and male respondents as well as between early-career and mid to late-career teachers. It is recommended that instructional tools and curriculum resources be organized in an easy-to-access format and provide a structured plan for ease of implementation for SBAE teachers. Many of the identified needs overlapped between different personal and professional characteristics, which provide the opportunity for mentorship/community development between early, mid, and late-career teachers as well as alternative/emergency certified participants with traditional certified participants. Specifically identified needs as in Region V’s skills and techniques for working with students with special needs and late-career teacher’s assistance/resources for training FFA teams, should be addressed through professional development, communication of tools available, and updated resources targeted specifically to the participants’ needs.

Additionally, professional development opportunities should focus on furthering the human capital of the complete person for SBAE teachers in Oklahoma. Respect and work-life balance represent basic human needs found at the subsistence, security, and belonging level within the conceptual model of support for SBAE (Marsh et al., 2023). Efforts should be made to build relationships, as the sharing of resources and fostering of mentorship between the career phases could help to bridge the identified need gap and increase security in the profession since one-size fits all is not effective for creating the human capital growth needed to overcome the current identified needs (Marsh et al., 2023; Doss et al., 2022; Klassen & Chiu, 2010; Shoulders et al., 2021). Additionally, providing SBAE teachers with the necessary resources to advocate and defend the value of their programs when communicating with parents, administration, and the surrounding community helps to increase a sense of respect and appreciation.

Future research should further investigate the impact of such professional development, including alternatives to one-time professional development workshops. Furthermore, the perceived expectations of SBAE teachers from superintendents and school administrators should be evaluated to potentially address the value, respect, and workload of Oklahoma SBAE teachers. Validation of the conceptual model of support for SBAE should be evaluated as a tool for identifying SBAE teachers’ unique needs and connecting them with actionable resources.


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Effectiveness of Online Program Engagement for 4-H Members during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Lauren B. Hood, Clemson University, eburdin@clemson.edu

Christopher J. Eck, Oklahoma State University, Chris.eck@okstate.edu

K. Dale Layfield, Clemson University, dlayfie@clemson.edu

Joseph L. Donaldson, North Carolina State University, Joseph_donaldson@ncsu.edu

PDF Available


Since 1902, 4-H Youth Development programs have been implemented by Cooperative Extension Agents or Educators for teaching, influencing, and leading youth to new life skills that can shape and influence their futures through hands-on learning methods. Fast forward to 2020 when 4-H programs shifted to virtual methods during the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of this study and the overarching research question was to identify the perceptions of participants and their parent/guardian related to the virtual 4-H programming opportunities available to youth in South Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic. This qualitative inquiry was undergirded by the need for achievement theory. Focus group interviews of South Carolina 4-H participants revealed two overarching themes, including communication (before and during COVID-19) and impacts on involvement and retention. Overall, the majority of families interviewed for this study were pleased with their 4-H agent and volunteer’s impact and levels of communication during and post-COVID-19. State 4-H leaders are not only recommended, but highly encouraged, to establish best practices for virtual 4-H programming.


Cooperative Extension Services across the United States serve their respective states by offering unbiased, research-based education to audiences young and old (Monks et al., 2017). Cooperative Extension serves as the essential connection between the land-grant university and the public, requiring extension professionals to localize programs and adapt to the needs of their constituents (Cooper & Graham, 2001). “In the last decade, Cooperative Extension has rapidly diversified its portfolio in many ways to respond to the needs of people in our rapidly changing society, including adapting to online learning environments and ‘the cloud’” (Gould et al., 2014, para. 7). One of the most important needs to date was navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before COVID-19-related closures, 4-H groups and clubs were led by volunteers or 4-H professionals and met in various locations, at varying times to engage, study and practice, or for fellowship and celebration (Burnett et al., 2000). With the COVID-19 pandemic shut down of schools, educators and parents were not prepared to quickly provide hands-on learning activities to complete at home (Loose & Ryan, 2020). Cooperative Extension services nationwide quickly and efficiently created virtual solutions and alternatives to offset the lack of in-person programming (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). Cooperative Extension has been challenged to deliver relevant programs with measurable end-results to its audiences (Gould et al., 2014), but how can this be accomplished during a pandemic?  The pandemic created unique challenges and obstacles for all 4-H professionals and volunteers. These dedicated adults were required to be intrinsically and extrinsically motivated (Calvert & Fabregas Janeiro, 2020) to overcome said challenges and obstacles. Grégoire (2004) noted dedicated 4-H professionals and volunteers can quickly adjust to changing needs. These quick-thinking professionals and volunteers were put to the test during the pandemic. Non-parental adults, or adults who serve in volunteer leader capacities described by McNeill (2010), helped provide 4-H programming opportunities to youth via virtual platforms and take-home kits once local Extension offices closed due to the pandemic.

These programming opportunities were meant to aid at-home learning with hands-on activities that, in most cases, were aligned with school standards and to promote positive youth development (PYD); Extension professionals had to learn how to integrate new technologies (e.g., “Zoom”) to engage their stakeholders and provide purposeful educational opportunities (Eck et al., 2022). COVID-19 impacted PYD, including trauma, isolation, the loss of relationships, daily routines, and social outlets to name a few (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). With the knowledge of these impacts, Extension professionals strived to remain “consistent with [the] mission of positive youth development, [as] the 4-H program is uniquely positioned to address and mitigate COVID-19 impacts on youths by focusing on building youth assets and providing supportive contexts” (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020, para. 10). 

It has been recommended that additional research is essential “to gather feedback from parents and members on their perceptions of their own states’ programming efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic” (Hood, 2021, p. 15). Therefore, this study aimed to uncover the perceptions of those participating, specifically, 4-H youth and parents/guardians, in virtual 4-H programming opportunities in South Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study also yields recommended best practices for future virtual programming. In Gordon and Curlee’s (2011) book, The Virtual Project Management Office: Best Practices, Proven Methods, the authors state, “all organizations must have processes and procedures based on best practices to enhance their chances of success” (p. 109). Several of the best practices recommended revolve around communication with and without Internet access.

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

McClelland’s (1987) need for achievement theory undergirded this study. This theory of motivation (McClelland, 1987) is associated with learning concepts, where needs are learned through coping environments (Pardee, 1990). The theory outlines three motivating factors; the need for achievement, the need for affiliation, and the need for power (Gill et al., 2010). The need for achievement is associated with personality characteristics such as strong goal setting, taking calculated risks, appreciating feedback, and preferring to work alone (McClelland, 1987). On the other hand, the need for affiliation corresponds with someone who wants to be part of the larger group, is often considered a follower, prefers collaboration, and avoids risk (McClelland, 1987). Finally, someone who likes to win, wants to control situations, enjoys competition, and thrives on recognition aligns with the need for power (McClelland, 1987). These motivating factors associated with McClelland’s (1987) work stem from the theory of needs established by Maslow in the 1940s.

According to McClelland (1987), the three motivating factors exist inherently regardless of gender, age, or culture, but the dominating factor is often one’s life experiences. The need for achievement theory has been implemented in 4-H studies addressing the participation and retention of members (Baney & Jones, 2013; Gill et al., 2010). Based on previous use of the theory, it aligns with this study to explore 4-H member participation and engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


This study explored if virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic provided vital engagement opportunities for 4-H youth. Realizing that Extension professionals received just-in-time training to learn new technologies to overcome communication challenges (Eck et al., 2022), their efforts to provide those engagement opportunities for 4-H members were investigated.


This exploratory qualitative research study (Price, et. al, 2018) implemented a case study design using focus groups to further evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 4-H youth in South Carolina. This qualitative inquiry was developed based on previous survey research recommending a deeper dive into the perceptions of 4-H youth and families during the COVID-19 pandemic (Hood, 2021). Therefore, the research team constructed a flexible qualitative interview protocol, consisting of a series of seven overarching questions and talking points to discuss with participants to provide deep, rich information related to participant perceptions of the virtual 4-H programing in South Carolina. Focus groups were held during July 2021 online via Zoom.

The interview protocol was evaluated for face and content validity (Salkind, 2012) by three faculty members in agricultural and extension education across two universities who have all completed coursework and previous research in qualitative inquiry. An email invitation was sent to families of youth who participated in virtual 4-H programming during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Carolina and provided a follow-up email address. The sampling frame consisted of 1,669 individuals (adults and youth). Four families, which included four adults and seven children, (n = 11) across South Carolina responded to the invitation and were willing to participate in a Zoom focus group interview. These four families represented three of the four regions in South Carolina and had youth enrolled across the three 4-H age brackets (i.e., Cloverbud, Junior, and Senior). Zoom was used to conduct the focus groups, while also allowing for the interviews to be recorded and interview transcriptions to be developed through the platform. Each family was provided a family number to allow proper tracking and triangulation across sources, while also providing anonymity.

After the focus group interviews, the lead researcher reviewed the interview transcripts against the audio/video recording to verify accuracy. The research team then analyzed the data using the constant comparative method (Glasser & Strauss, 1967). The research team used the video recording of each focus group, interview transcripts, and interviewer notes to allow codes, themes, and categories to emerge describing the family’s reality (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Glesne, 2016). In addition to multiple descriptions of data, the research team corroborated to develop the emerging themes, following the recommendations of Creswell and Poth (2018) to improve the accuracy of data analysis through coding checks, establishing reliability of the coding process. Specifically, the constant comparative method was implemented, which allows the data, including the participants voice, to speak for itself (Glasser & Strauss, 1967). Three rounds of coding were implemented starting with open-source coding (Creswell & Poth, 2018). The codes from the first round were then analyzed using axial coding, where the relationships of codes were used to establish categories (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Glasser & Strauss, 1967). The final round implemented selective coding, allowing the overarching themes to emerge as core themes and variables linking back to the conceptual framework established by Gill et al. (2010) which connected to the factors established within McClelland’s (1987) motivational needs theory.

Within a qualitative inquiry it is imperative that the research team aim to address the four criteria provided by Privitera (2017) to ensure trustworthiness (i.e., credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability). Using interview transcripts, audio/video recordings, and interviewer field notes allowed the true opinions of the 4-H families to be reflected in the study, which addresses credibility (Privitera, 2017). Although this qualitative inquiry was limited to four families, all families participating in virtual 4-H programming during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Carolina had the opportunity to participate and the families who did participate represented different parts of the state, different 4-H age classifications of the youth (i.e., Cloverbud, Junior, and Senior), and participation in the different virtual programs offered, allowing this data to have transferability across the state. Implementing the focus group style interview with a flexible interview protocol and the varying characteristics of participants allows for consistent data collection (Privitera, 2017). Allowing the perspectives of the families to be represented in the findings and not the researchers bias speaks to the confirmability of this study (Privitera, 2017), which was addressed through the established interview protocol, three round coding process, member checks, and interpretation of data sources.

Reflexivity Statement

Palaganas et al. (2017) suggested that researchers acknowledge their inherent bias related to their study and disclose their identity to offer reflexivity. The research team for this study consisted of a graduate student in agricultural education, who was also an active 4-H youth development educator, along with three faculty members in agricultural and extension education at Clemson University and North Carolina State University. The graduate student had worked in Extension for eight years and was completing a degree in agricultural education at Clemson University. The three faculty members have more than 40 years of experience combined in agricultural and extension education. Overall, the research team recognized their bias toward Extension because of their professional roles and felt they addressed the biases through the established procedures and trustworthiness of the study.


The focus group interviews were analyzed allowing categories to emerge related to the youth and parents’ perceptions of the virtual 4-H programming offered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The emerging codes and themes resulted in two overarching categories, including communication and 4-H agent/volunteer leader impact.

Category 1: Communication

The first category to emerge throughout was communication. Communication was then divided into two themes: pre-COVID-19 and during-COVID-19 to represent the participants’ perceptions. Family #1 [mom] mentioned they were impressed with the level of communication and the amount of programming offered. They said that it seemed like there were more newsletters sent out and that there was more information within those newsletters compared to before COVID-19. Family #1’s mom wrapped up the conversation with, “you guys have done an off the charts, valiant job with communication when it’s just been such a difficult year.” Family #2 [the parents] detailed how there has been little to no communication on the county level. “Well, it’s been zero communication from the county level, and we have a child serving as a county club officer,” said Family #2’s mom. She also said, “we just feel very really sad because there are so many possibilities under 4-H that are so incredible, so I feel like not only did we lose, and not just because of the pandemic, we didn’t feel like we were part of it anymore.” The few details they had about 4-H activities offered during COVID-19-related closures they found on their own through the state social media pages or the state 4-H website.

Family #2 reported no communication from both their local agent and their local club’s volunteer leader. The family also commented that they had just recruited a new family to join their local group, so it was especially frustrating that this new family joined and received zero information. This was not an issue prior to COVID-19. Family #3 [mom] complimented the marketing strategies and graphics used for marketing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon seeing a ‘random Facebook ad’ for South Carolina 4-H@Home, Family #3’s mom signed up to begin receiving the daily emails. Family #3’s mom said that her sorority sister was a part of 4-H growing up, so she had heard of 4-H before. She also stated, “all of the advertising led me to contact our local county 4-H agent to get my son signed up.” Prior to COVID-19-related closures, Family #3 was not aware of local 4-H programming. Family #4 commented that their 4-H agent does a “good job” of communicating. Family #4’s youth were very active in county and statewide projects and held leadership positions locally. Family #4’s local 4-H agent was known for publicly advertising 4-H programming through various methods pre- and during-COVID-19. The facial expressions and non-verbal cues demonstrated in the Zoom recordings and documented in the interviewer notes furthered the emotions documented in the comments above. For example, Family #2 was obviously frustrated by the lack of communication, you could clearly see they had higher expectations from previous experiences with 4-H and really wanted the experience to continue to be a positive one for their family and others they recruited.

Category 2: 4-H Agent/Volunteer Leader Impact

The second category from the focus group was 4-H agent/volunteer leader impact. All four families had something to say regarding the leadership within the county where they participated. 4-H agent/volunteer leader impact can further be divided into positive and negative impact themes. Family #1 described the positive impact of their local 4-H agent: “our local agent is so gifted in matching the child with what will both be interesting to them and what will grow them and push them just a little bit at just the right time.” Family #1’s mom went on to compliment the other local agents the family works with, as well as the state staff. Family #2’s parents described the negative impact of their local 4-H agent/volunteer leader regarding an issue with the local organization before COVID-19 closures, but it seemed to be “explained away enough” and that they would let it slide after eventual communication. Family #2’s parents also mentioned that they were not “on the same standing as others” because they were not originally from their county, like their local leadership. Family #2 described their local 4-H agent as normally being a good agent, but “they [agent] just did not really step up during the pandemic.”

The disappointment and frustrations continued to build from Family #2, but the other families did not let the negative perceptions of one’s experience impact their overall perception of the impact of their 4-H agent/volunteer leader. Family #3’s mom said due to their participation in 4-H@Home, they were able to connect with their local agent. She said it was the best thing they could have done because the local agent is “wonderful.” Family #3’s local agent was complimented on their skills to work with younger children and that they are so welcoming. Family #3’s mom stated “[our agent] always provides a plethora of information for any activity and it helps so much since we are a brand new 4-H family.” Family #4’s 4-H member conveyed they like working with their local agent and that they do a “good job.” Family #4’s 4-H member also does a lot of projects that aligned with the expertise of the local 4-H agents and the excitement of the common interest was obvious in the videos and noted in the interviewer notes.

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

Based on the focus group participants’ interviews, their 4-H agents should be commended for the programming made available during the Covid-19 pandemic, underscoring the fact that Extension professionals and volunteers were able to successfully pivot 4-H programming from predominately in-person to predominately virtual (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). “Virtual Programming did not eliminate the need for a local connection – it only highlighted the importance of a local connection who was a broker of education among: (a) networked programs, (b) local audiences, and (c) the land-grant institution” (J. L. Donaldson, personal communication, July 6, 2021).

McClelland’s (1987) need for achievement theory was useful for understanding 4-H retention among participating families. This theory warrants additional research, as we do not know the extent to which the needs of youth and families may have changed due to the pandemic and the associated fear and loss. The pandemic created substantial trauma, isolation, and loss of relationships (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). 4-H youth development programs may need to respond with discrete programs to promote mental and emotional health.

Family #1’s virtual experience and the local 4-H agent’s efforts met all three of McClelland’s (1987) needs: (1) achievement, (2) affiliation, and (3) power. Family #1’s mom reflected on how her older children became stronger leaders in 4-H through the local ambassador program and helped their younger siblings participate through 4-H kits. She [mom] said, “I really appreciated the Journey to Mars kit because my [age] year old was able to use it as a leadership opportunity on her resume for our local STEAM club.” Unfortunately, due to Family #2’s experience, none of McClelland’s Needs were met. The family recalled no communication from the local agent or volunteer, which was especially troubling to them since their two children were local club officers. Family #3’s experience allowed for two of McClelland’s (1987) needs to be met: achievement and affiliation. Because the 4-H member interviewed was very young and brand new to the program, they did not serve in any leadership roles. Family #3’s agent made opportunities available for youth to experience all of McClelland’s (1987) needs, despite this participating member’s young age. Family #4’s positive experience allowed for all three of McClelland’s needs to be met. Also, because of the opportunities Family #4’s local agent provided; McClelland’s (1987) needs were easily met.

Regarding communications, families appreciated the more frequent and detailed communication from county programs, as well as the improved marketing efforts. Despite this success, some areas for improvement were noteworthy. One family recalled not knowing if 4-H still existed in their county or in South Carolina due to the lack of communication. Communication is one of the most important skills within Cooperative Extension, especially 4-H. Ultimately, this related to the need for affiliation and the need for achievement (Gill et al., 2010; McClelland, 1987) for success, as it is essential for 4-H youth to feel connected to the youth organization (i.e., 4-H), the organization leader, and their friends, while perceiving the availability of engagement opportunities. Unfortunately, a lack of communication and limited opportunities (with the agent and programming) to engage hindered some families’ perceptions related to their members’ ability to be affiliated and obtain a sense of achievement.

Another category from this study was 4-H agent and volunteer impact. Families interviewed were asked about their relationship with the local 4-H agent or volunteer they worked with the most. Families #1, #3 and #4 described a positive relationship and praised their agent. Family #2 stated they have been working with a local volunteer and their 4-H agent and ever since COVID-19 pandemic closures, the impacts have been negative. From this focus group, it was clear that 4-H agents and volunteers can make or break the decision to join or re-enroll in a county program. If the need for affiliation is not met (McClelland, 1987), the retention of 4-H can be negatively impacted, ultimately affecting program quality (Gill et al., 2010). This became evident with the focus group interviews as families were either planning to remain or leave 4-H based on their perception of impact of the agent/volunteer leader.

While it is easy to implicate county 4-H agents for a lack of communications and a lack of programming during COVID-19-related closures, it is imperative to understand the challenges faced by Extension 4-H professionals and volunteers. Israel et al. (2020) described how COVID-19 affected Extension agents with having to manage work-life balance with multiple interruptions that could have affected programming efforts and communication with clientele. Extension agents and volunteers could have been dealing with the virus themselves or caring for an infected family member; caring for an elderly parent, family member, or neighbor; and/or may have needed resources to conduct regular work while quarantined at home. The pandemic took a toll on people in many different ways, but perhaps this was exacerbated with Extension Professionals in South Carolina as they were trying to learn a new platform (i.e., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meets) that they were not entirely comfortable with while simultaneously engaging with their clientele (Eck et al., 2022).

It should be noted that this study was limited to four families who participated in virtual programing during the pandemic is South Carolina and agreed to attend the focus group interviews for this study. Extension programming, especially youth programming, varied state by state and educator by educator, therefore the findings of this study were restricted to the views of the participating families’ experiences. Although limitations existed within the study, the findings, conclusions, and recommendations provided an opportunity for transferable results and best practices for those with similar needs and/or responsibilities within Extension programming. It was the responsibility of the research team to carry out the study based on the intended purpose, but it is up to the reader and potential applier of the results to make a judgement on the transferability of the study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).  

State 4-H leaders are not only recommended, but highly encouraged, to create a best practices list for virtual 4-H programming. Designed by the researchers’ reactions to the data and their personal experiences, Table 1 outlines best practices to guide agents and volunteers in communicating with their clientele. Several of the best practices listed in Table 1 revolve around technology and Internet deficits experienced by many youth and their families (Evans et al., 2021). Gordon and Curlee (2011) remind us that good communication is essential in organizations and it is not productive for people to become quiet. They also state, “often, people ignore issues they shouldn’t” (Gordon and Curlee, 2011, p. 137) which can cause a snowball effect of issues building and success within the organization jeopardized. “Organizations can no longer rely on one-way communication methods to interact with stakeholders” (Holthausen et al., 2021, para. 31). Therefore, 4-H programs should be advertised via multiple methods such as online, hardcopy, television, or radio media. A list of best practices may be especially valuable for newly hired 4-H professionals who may or may not have the opportunity to be part of on-boarding procedures.

Table 1

Best Practices for 4-H agents, educators, specialists, and volunteers in Virtual Programming

Best Practice
Establish multiple methods of communication with county participants.
Create a contact list of people on the local, regional, and state level who can provide more information on virtual programming.
Advertise programs via online, hardcopy (mail/newspapers), television, or radio media.
Establish if 4-H participants will need to print materials used in virtual program.
Complete midway and end of the activity/program check-ins with the participants.
Offer to schedule (in-person or at-a-distance/Zoom) visits with participants to stay updated on them throughout the program year.

Future research should be explored using more families for interviews to gain a better understanding of 4-H leader impact. It is also recommended that in-person focus groups are held, with the option of virtual meetings via video conference. Based on the interviews conducted, it was evident the parents dominated the conversations as if the parents were vicariously giving accounts for the children. Based on this knowledge, it is recommended that the interviews be split into a conversation with parents only, and a separate conversation with just youth. Additionally, the questions and topics discussed within future research should be expanded to include use of the life skills learned in 4-H among 4-H members.

Overall, three of the four families interviewed for this study were pleased with their 4-H agent and volunteer’s impact and levels of communication during and post-COVID-19. There is room for improvement in both categories. 4-H agents and volunteers should continuously work on ways to improve their communication and teaching styles. These same caring adult leaders should not only think of youth, but also themselves when striving to “make the best better.”


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Perceived Readiness of First Year Agriculture Teachers to Teach Low Socioeconomic Students

Rachelle Staehr, York High School, rachelle.staehr@yorkdukes.org

Nathan Conner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, nconner2@unl.edu

Bryan Reiling, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, breiling2@unl.edu

Taylor Ruth, University of Tennessee, truth3@utk.edu

Jacob Goldfuss, Summerland Public School, jacobgoldfuss@summerlandbobcats.org

PDF Available


Approximately10.5% of children in Nebraska live in poverty. Poverty in a child’s life impacts both physical and cognitive development. This qualitative case study explored agricultural education teachers perceived confidence when teaching students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Eight high school agriculture teachers were interviewed, and the following themes emerged from the data: (a) teacher emotions, (b) observations, and (c) accommodations. The teachers felt prepared to teach students that are impacted by poverty. It is recommended that teacher preparation programs select courses that specifically address working with students that are living in poverty. Additionally, exposure to students from low SES backgrounds early in their teacher preparation program will help them to learn how to build positive relationships with students and how to accommodate this population.


Children were the highest likely group of individuals to be living in poverty (Dornan, 2017). Talk Poverty (2020) identified that 10.5% of children in Nebraska public schools live in poverty. This correlates directly with Dornan’s (2017) identification of children being the highest likely group to live in poverty, as Talk Poverty (2021) ranked children at a higher rate of poverty than any other surveyed group. This growing issue was evident within Nebraska public schools and educators need to be prepared for it.

Throughout preservice teachers’ educational experiences, professors have utilized a variety of different methods to educate their students on this phenomenon. Cho et al. (2015) explored the option of educating teachers to be anthropologists in future encounters of student poverty, while Baggerly (2006) focused on the power of service-learning experiences. With a growing need for teacher confidence in the identification and accommodation of students of low socioeconomic status (SES), teacher educators must ensure they have prepared their students to effectively accommodate classroom instruction for students living in poverty.

Child poverty has reared its head as multidimensional poverty within American schools as students lack basic resources due to availability, location, and family structures (Dornan, 2017). Roelen (2017) discussed differences between children of monetary poverty and children of multidimensional poverty. Monetary poverty is described as strictly a measurement of household income and expenses and was also defined as indirect poverty because it is did not directly impact the resources of a family (Roelen, 2017). Roelen (2017) explained this concept by pointing out that not all financial funds accumulated by the household were used properly for the basic needs of all individuals within the household. Improper use of funds or lack of availability of basic needs within a community can create multidimensional poverty (Roelen, 2017). Multidimensional poverty was defined as the lack of and depletion of basic needs and resources (Roelen, 2017). This term was also referred to as direct poverty (Roelen, 2017). Each type of poverty is unique but not necessarily linked to each other depending on the economic status of the country inhabited (Roelen, 2017). 

Gupta (2017) gave readers a glimpse of a family’s life within poverty by providing a view of the assumptions and realities of their lives. America’s social work system has been known to sometimes forget to account for poverty when visiting families (Gupta, 2017). Gupta (2017) illustrated a situation in which individuals living in poverty were surrounded with assumptions of drug use and had parenting rights removed with little to no evidence. Thiede and Brooks (2018) outlined the correlation between immigration, family history, and poverty. This quantitative analysis identified that individuals of first and second generations who had two foreign born parents had a higher likelihood than other foreign individuals of living in poverty in America (Thiede & Brooks, 2018). This unfortunate relationship has been reality for many children in public schools and should be recognized by American school systems.

The direct relationship of poverty and its impacts on a child’s cognitive development was illustrated by Dolean et al., (2019) in a study done on the relation of socioeconomic status (SES) and development of reading and linguistic skills. SES was the likely root cause for many children’s inability to academically excel in the classroom (Dolean et al., 2019). Research identified frequent school absences, phonetic awareness, and bilingual homes to be largely impactful on the slow development of basic academic skills (Dolean et al., 2019). SES was directly linked to poor linguistic, phonetics, reading, letter knowledge, and nonverbal IQ (Dolean et al., 2019). Li et al. (2020) hypothesized that poverty and mental health have been negatively correlated. Li et al. (2020) survey asked school aged children about their access to common educational resources relative to their current mental health state. Anxiety and depression were common themes that manifested among students with lower SES, and poverty levels were associated with increased mental health issues in children (Li et al., 2020).

Over the past few years, school systems have subscribed to the ideas of Ruby Payne and her framework for understanding poverty (Osei-Kofi, 2005). These ideas were presented to communicate social norms and commonalities amongst those living in poverty (Osei-Kofi, 2005). Although these theories outlined positive things teachers can do for students, Osei-Kofi’s (2005) review identified its flaws of the framework in today’s world. Being a teacher himself, Osei-Kofi had a direct point of view on the impacts of Payne’s framework on his own school. He observed that the framework created biases around certain groups of people and the framework’s influence on the No Child Left Behind Act gave teachers almost impossible standards to reach (Osei-Kofi, 2005). The No Child Left Behind Act created a system in which standardized tests blamed teachers for any student failure (Osei-Kofi, 2005). Although much of Payne’s research was valid, she made assumptions that stretch teacher’s limits and impose unfair assumptions on students (Osei-Kofi, 2005). One example from Osei-Kofi’s (2005) review indicated  that Payne outlined children in poverty as inadequate and in need of repair from a teacher. The responsibility of the student’s so-called repair was placed solely on the teacher (Osei-Kofi, 2005).

An article by Payne and Ortiz (2007) outlined multiple factors such as socioeconomic status of a household and the talent of teachers as huge impacts on the success of students in the classroom. Many of those students who have struggled with standardized tests may also be victims of multidimensional poverty (Payne & Ortiz, 2007). Educators cannot solve child poverty; they do not have the responsibility of child poverty, but they have been  doing everything they can to help children living in poverty (Payne & Ortiz, 2007).

The exploration of child poverty, cognitive development, and educator limits lead us toward identification of applicable solutions for how America’s educational system can help children in poverty. Jackson (2014) explored the emotions of educators and students surrounding children living in poverty and found that there was a shocking overall acceptance of poverty by our society. Educators have a duty to promote proper emotional response to social injustices (Jackson, 2014). There was no shortage of sympathy amongst students and teachers, but empathy will be  needed to impact society (Jackson, 2014). Empathy is the initial step in the emotional process and is needed to enact change within society (Jackson, 2014).

Sato and Lensmire (2009) pointed out that teachers should be culturally responsive. While teachers may already do this, it needs to be an intentional effort to really assist students in poverty. For example, teachers need to recognize that not all students, based on factors such as SES, have the same prior knowledge or commonalities that were often assumed within the classroom (Sato & Lensmire, 2009). Students of poverty may not have these shared experiences (Sato & Lensmire, 2009). An empathetic and involving teacher is one who is also culturally aware throughout their curriculum (Sato & Lensmire, 2009).

The Poverty Simulation was a program utilized in the education of college students entering social work and health care fields (Vandsburger et al., 2010). This case study utilized three common scales used in diversity education: (1) the Critical Thinking Scale, (2) Understanding of Others Scale, and the (3) Active Learning Scale are used to measure the effectiveness of this simulation (Vandsburger et al., 2010). The simulation consisted of daily tasks and navigation through life for a given amount of time as an individual of poverty (Vandsburger et al., 2010). While 82.2% of individuals who participated in this simulation experienced further contemplation of poverty’s effects, only 58.4% of participants were moved to take social action (Vandsburger et al., 2010). Results of this study showed that the simulation was impactful in the education of college individuals, but true empathy was not always reached (Vandsburger et al., 2010).

Community connections and service learning are powerful educational tools that were explored by Baggerly (2006) in the setting of the education of preservice teachers. Service learning was outlined as a symbiotic relationship between urban communities and universities within them (Baggerly, 2006). A lot of students attending universities have minimal experience with poverty themselves, so properly designed service-learning projects can provide them exposure to the impacts of poverty (Baggerly, 2006). This experience was valuable for preservice teachers because it helped them understand the background of future students in poverty (Baggerly, 2006). Major goals of service learning should be for students to experience different cultures and to encourage students to take social action (Baggerly, 2006). These impactful projects can create knowledge that preservice teachers can draw from in their teaching careers (Baggerly, 2006). This experience was recognized as impactful in educating students about the realities of poverty (Baggerly, 2006).


The purpose of this case study was to explore the perceived preparedness of first year agricultural teachers from the University of Nebraska to educate an increasing population of children of low socioeconomic status (SES) in Nebraska public schools. The preparedness of first year agriculture  teachers to educate students of poverty was defined as their feelings toward the accommodations they are able to make. The overarching research question was, do first year agricultural teachers who graduated from University of Nebraska feel prepared to educate students who are impacted by childhood poverty?


Qualitative research was conducted because it allows researchers to create a vivid interpretation of the world around them (Creswell & Poth, 2018). This qualitative study was working on the assumption that there was a growing need for first year agricultural teachers to be holistically educated on child poverty to increase their confidence in the identification and accommodation techniques for these students. A case study methodology was used in this study. As defined by Creswell and Poth (2018), a case study is the study of an actual, real life, case within a real context. A case study also takes place within a system that is bounded by a place and time (Crestwell & Poth, 2018). The bounded system recognized in this study, and hence the participation criteria for this study, was first year agricultural teachers from University of Nebraska who were employed by Nebraska public schools.

This study utilized purposeful sampling to select the individuals who provided experiences and information that were consistent to this bounded system. An initial recruitment email was sent to 28 agricultural teachers who met the participation criteria. There were only eight first year agriculture teachers from University of Nebraska that agreed to participate in the study. Creswell and Poth (2018) posited that five participants are adequate for a case study, however, we used eight participants to help achieve data saturation.

Participant/School Description

Teacher one came from a school in northeastern Nebraska and was the only agricultural teacher at this school. Student diversity included about a 69% population of white individuals and around a 22% population of American Indian individuals (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). Teacher two was one of two agricultural teachers at a large high school in eastern Nebraska. This diverse school had a population of about 68% Hispanic students with 13% white as the next highest race within the population (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). Teacher three came from a one teacher agricultural education program at a school in southeastern Nebraska with a high majority white student population (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). The fourth, fifth and sixth teachers interviewed were also in one teacher programs at schools in the central (T4), northern (T5), and southern (T6) parts of Nebraska with high majority white student populations (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). The seventh and eighth teachers came from small, one teacher program schools, while being located in western (T7) and central (T8) Nebraska schools. Both T7 and T8 were located at schools with a high majority white student population as well (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021).

Data Collection and Analysis

This qualitative case study used semi-structured interviews to collect data during September 2021. The semi-structured interviews took place over Zoom and lasted approximately 20 minutes. The interview questions allowed for open-ended answers that encouraged storytelling and real-life examples. The interviews were recorded and transcribed through Zoom. Data was analyzed for the emergence of themes. The transcripts were read three times and reoccurring words, phrases, and ideas were categorized together and used to identify the themes that emerged. Creswell and Poth (2018) stated, “themes are broad units of information that consist of several codes aggregated to form a common idea.” (p. 186). Codes were organized into themes using tables to help conceptualize the overarching concepts.


Trustworthiness measures were used to determine the truth, value, credibility, and reliability of the research study (Dooley, 2007; Erlandson, et al., 1993; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Triangulation was achieved in this study by use of multiple researchers (Dooley, 2007; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Peer debriefing was used and allowed a researcher that was not associated with the study to review the data and give insight on how the data was analyzed(Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Dooley, 2007).

Subjectivity Statement

As an agricultural education teacher at a public school and the lead researcher on this article, I have encountered a higher rate of students living in poverty or of low SES than I expected. This study was completed during my third-year teaching and I found myself still having to adapt to many new and shocking situations. For example, many of my students lack funds available to supply their own jeans and boots for welding classes and other students have told me about nights they spend in their cars. The reason why I wanted to select my sample specifically from agricultural teachers because in my personal experience, many disadvantaged students are ‘dumped’ in agricultural courses to explore careers. Even though school counselors have good intentions, students in poverty can easily fall behind in these hands-on classes. These students may have a difficult time purchasing or providing the extra supplies that are typically needed. As a teacher, I would like to be better prepared to help these students and to identify tools to help support them as an empathetic, positive role model in their lives.


The following themes emerged from the data: (a) teacher emotions, (b) observations of poverty, and (c) accommodations. Within these themes, various codes were identified to help sort and categorize data and commonalities throughout the interviews.

Theme #1: Teacher Emotions

The theme of teacher emotions was defined by the internal feelings’ teachers have as they navigate difficult decisions when working to accommodate students of poverty. During interviews, many emotions were discussed. Teachers identified common emotions of empathy, concern, and compassion. Empathy was expressed by T1, T2, T4, T5, and T8 when acknowledging that many students were in poverty situations through no fault of their own. T1 indicated that students were usually helpless in their own availability of resources. T2 explained that many students living in poverty missed out on opportunities teachers try to provide, this leaves teachers feeling heartbroken. T2 continued to explain their feelings on this issue by saying, “I know they’re going to have these struggles in life because they are already behind the eight-ball compared to many other peers, and for no reason than being born into the circumstances.” T2 and T4 also expressed an interest in breaking the cycle of poverty experienced by many of their students.

When the concerns of participants were addressed, the collective consensus of T1, T3, T6, and T7 was that all teachers feel the stress and difficulty of helping these students. T3 illustrated their own worry over the physical conditions these students live in each day and how the physical conditions impacted their abilities within the classroom. T3 and T7 both expressed a feeling of helplessness in many of the situations they encountered. Emotions of grace and compassion were also identified with T2 and T8. Prioritizing what was best for students and having a forgiving attitude was emphasized by T2. T8 described a deep respect for students who juggled the complications of a life in poverty yet maintain a positive influence within school.

Theme #2: Observations of Poverty

Observations of poverty was defined by the identifying factors of poverty teachers have witnessed within their first couple of months teaching. These observations were broken down into the following sub themes: physical observations, impacts of poverty, and lack of resources.

Physical Observations

Location of observations made by educators who participated in these interviews ranged from the general community to inside the school building. T1 reported their own physical observations of poverty by simply driving around town and seeing where students were living. Behaviors observed inside the schools by T1, T2, T5, T6, T7, and T8 included students missing school due to babysitting responsibilities, wearing old clothes every day, lack of hygiene, taking home school lunch to share with family, difficulties focusing, and a lack of engagement whenever money was mentioned in class. T6 stated, “As I discussed details for a fieldtrip, I watched a student physically slump in their chair when I requested students bring money for lunches.”

Impacts of Poverty

Many teacher observations were made individually through strong personal relationships built with students in poverty. Through relationships, students can reveal details about their lives that identify themselves as children of poverty. These conversations created observable information for teachers. T4 and T5 discussed being shocked at the sheer lack of confidence many students express during conversations with students of poverty. T2 described one situation by saying, “I’ve got one student, I know, that works until 11 o’clock every night to help her family pay the bills, so they have a lot of missing assignments.” T3 and T7 also could identify students in similar situations. T2’s students also expressed interests in being the first generation in their families to attend college or trade school. T1 theorized that many students living in poverty were highly motivated by simply wanting to break their own cycle. T4 expressed their observations of high levels of hard work and determination from students living in poverty. T3, T4, and T8 identified lack of sleep and emotional stress as two consequences of poverty. T3, T4, and T8 reported students helplessly falling asleep in class after working a long night shift. T3 also reported having students act distant and emotional due to the stresses of their everyday life. These two impacts had a severe negative toll on the student’s abilities to learn and participate in class. Through personal conversations with students T3 and T8 concluded students who were consistently overly tired in class usually spent time working to pay bills. Students could easily be overscheduled, and some employers may not recognize the demands on their time. T3 said, “Our school actually reached out and said, hey, just be aware that these are high school students and we know that they’re working a lot. First and foremost, they need to be students.” T3 and T4 pointed out that poverty may not allow children to experience as many opportunities.

Lack of Resources

All teachers interviewed identified examples of actual lack of resources from students in poverty. During the shutdown of many schools, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were expected to learn from home using technology and the internet. However, T1, T2, and T4 identified the lack of reliable internet and technology was problematic for many students in poverty. T4 indicated that students living in poverty had issues sourcing these necessary resources and sharing them with siblings in the same situations. This lack of resources could include a lack of equipment within a household, lack of bandwidth, or lack of reliable internet. All teachers interviewed also indicated that transportation and financial support impact students’ school experiences. Although public education is free, extracurricular activities that compliment classroom learning are not. T2, T4 and T8 explained different situations in which students could not afford opportunities that FFA provides. However, these teachers made their own accommodations for these students.

Theme #3: Accommodations

The theme of teacher accommodations was defined as any adaptations or changes teachers made to help students of poverty. The different accommodations teachers made all fell into the following sub themes: (a) advocacy, (b) relationships, and (c) monetary support.


Some great points brought up through discussion with T3 included strong intentions to advocate for students. T3 stated: “I will do whatever I can to make sure that you’re (students are) supplemented with whatever you (students) need.” T1 stated that agricultural educators, have a unique advantage compared to other teachers because of their preparation to mentor a student to explore certain careers and trades. Agricultural educators teach classes directly tied to real life careers. Students who have taken agricultural classes were taught basic skills needed for entry level positions out of high school within agricultural careers or the trades. T1 also expressed focusing class content on trades that all students could explore. All teachers interviewed believed it was their job to advocate for their own students.


Relationships, built through classroom experiences, were a huge asset when working with students. Through strong student relationships, T1, T2, T3, T4 and T6 provided examples of simple accommodations provided. Based on student suggestions, accommodations made by T1, T2, and T6 included virtualizing assignments for accessibility, providing class work time, and allowing retakes. These simple steps provided a more stress-free environment for students. T3, T4, T7, and T8 also accommodated students by providing all materials needed for class and creating an open line of communication where teachers can easily check in on students.

Monetary Support

T1 and T4 mentioned that FFA provided help to support students who cannot afford opportunities that exist within the organization. T5, T6, and T7 also discussed how they discretely provided extra cash to students who cannot afford lunches on trips and hold fundraisers for all students to provide free opportunities within FFA. These young teachers were already expressing the importance of finding a way to include all students in all activities to create a strong organization and environment.

Conclusions, Discussion, and Recommendations

Educators of today are almost certain to encounter a significant percentage of students living in poverty. America’s public school system has not clearly set the expectations of educator’s role in these student’s lives. Child poverty is a phenomenon that increasingly plagues our world and is currently being addressed through policy changes. These policy changes in our nation as well as others have the intent of bringing children out of poverty through economic focuses (Dornan, 2017). Nations are working to assist the growing population of children in poverty.

Teachers interviewed in this study were able to convey how they have felt while accommodating students of poverty. Emotional stress of teachers is a real issue and relating it to their education of students of poverty may be an indicator of their preparation to deal with this issue. Feelings of helplessness was a key concept identified through these interviews that could indicate deficiency in the preservice teacher’s education. When looking at the emotions reported by teachers interviewed, concern was likely stemming from the level of care they have for students. Most teachers interviewed appeared to genuinely care about their student’s wellbeing and little to no emphasis was placed on the teachers’ own feelings about their own abilities. Empathy was a concept utilized by all teachers interviewed. As Jackson (2009) mentioned, empathy is critically important in creating a learning environment that accompanies all students. The fact that all teachers interviewed were aware of and practicing empathy was a clear indication that they know what they need to do to help their students in poverty. However, teachers need to be taught how to take care of their own mental health needs. Agricultural teacher preparation programs should incorporate stress management techniques into their programing and develop units or workshops on how to take care of your mental health. A focus on taking of your mental health should be embedded into the entire agricultural teacher education program. Preservice agriculture teachers need to see positive examples of self-care and they also need structured opportunities throughout their program to practice self-care.

Although these young teachers were only a couple of months into their teaching career, they have been able to report a wide array of observations that can be used to identify students in poverty. Signs of poor health, both mental and physical, were used as identified by the teachers, which aligns with Li et al. (2020) assertion that students living in poverty struggle with maintaining their mental and physical health. All teachers interviewed had some sort of observation or story to report in which they identified poverty. These young teachers were able to see poverty in front of them; therefore, something in their education has prepared them for this issue. All of the teachers that participated in this study completed a 20-hour service learning project that required them to work with after school programs in a city. The service learning projects during their agricultural teacher education preparation program exposed the teachers to students of various social economic statuses. The incorporation of a service-learning project at after school programs is recommend for agricultural education teacher preparation programs to help expose the future teachers to a diverse group of students.

The accommodations explained by the teachers interviewed were both effective and creative in their nature. Financial, emotional, and health focused support was given by all teachers interviewed through simple accommodations they made in their classrooms and organizations. Teachers interviewed explained how they listen to student’s needs and communicate with them to create great relationships and effectively help students. This use of relationships to benefit students was a major sign of competency amongst these teachers. Similarly, this could be attributed to the service learning project that exposed the preservice agriculture teachers to students from diverse backgrounds.

Many children living in poverty not only lack financial resources, but also emotional resources, role models, and a general support system (Cuthrell et al., 2007). All of the teachers interviewed identified experiences they had in which positive relationships with students helped them provide individualized support to students in need. Positive relationships not only help students emotionally but will likely lead to higher academic achievement. It is recommended that agriculture teacher preparation programs emphasize the power of positive student teacher relationship and give the preservice teachers multiple opportunities to work with high school students so they can practice building relationships.

The young teachers interviewed demonstrated that they felt adequately prepared to deal with the realities of educating students of poverty. Although some indications of helplessness were communicated through interviews and many creative and adapting accommodations were discussed by each teacher. There were great solutions that already exist amongst this group of young agricultural teachers. Agricultural education is unique because it is so closely related to careers and hands-on opportunities. Because counselors push students of poverty towards career focused opportunities, many are enrolled in agricultural classes. These interviews revealed the young agricultural teachers were aware of this poverty issue, and they are up to the challenge of bettering student lives. We recommend that teacher preparation programs select courses that specifically address working with students living in poverty. Additionally, exposure to students from low SES backgrounds early in their teacher preparation program will help them to learn how to build positive relationships with students and how to accommodate them. The development of a sustained mentorship relationship between a preservice agriculture teacher and a low socioeconomic high school student is recommended. This mentor/mentee relation should be sustained over a long period of time so that the high school student and the preservice agriculture teacher can both experience growth and development. Ideally, the mentor/mentee relationship would start when the preservice teacher is in the first year of their program and the high school student is a freshman. If possible, the mentor/mentee relationship could last between two to four years depending on the duration of the agricultural teacher preparation program.

Future research that should follow up this study to include identifying what specific education methods for poverty education are the most impactful. A phenomenological case study should be conducted to better understand the feelings, perspectives, and needs of low socio-economic agriculture students.  An analysis of current poverty educational methods used may give teacher educators a better idea on how to create the most impactful experience for their students.


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Agricultural Entrepreneur Involvement of Eight Botswana Women: A Qualitative Study

Carrie Stephens, Professor, The University of Tennessee, cfritz@utk.edu

Haley Kelso, Graduate Assistant, The University of Tennessee, hkelso@vols.utk.edu

Sharon Jean-Philippe, Professor, The University of Tennessee, jeanphil@utk.edu

Jennifer Richards, Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee, jennifer.richards@utk.edu

Natalie Bumgarner, Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee, nbumgarn@utk.edu

Liz Eckelkamp, Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee, eeckelka@utk.edu

Shelli Rampold, Assistant Professor, The University of Tennessee, srampold@utk.edu

Neal Eash, Professor, The University of Tennessee, neash@utk.edu

Brent Lamons, Assistant Professor of Practice, The University of Tennessee, blamons1@utk.edu

PDF Available


The dynamics of agriculture in Botswana have been deeply rooted in traditional cultural values and have been shaped by the close connection between men and agriculture. Specifically, the dominance hierarchies that existed are those related to realities and relationships between those of humans and animals and their interconnectedness. The purpose of this study was to explore the leadership journeys of eight women in Botswana who have been involved in production agriculture. The central research questions asked were: (1) What lived experiences helped you obtain your agricultural position; and (2) What leadership characteristics do you identify as essential in your success? The participants for this study consisted of eight women in agriculture from Gaborone and Mabalane, Botswana. The methods employed to collect data in this study included three to four hour in-depth, audio-taped interviews. The researchers then discussed each individual’s coding schematic and emerged seven themes: (1) journey in agriculture; (2) networking and mentoring learning initiatives; (3) leadership and management; (4) family structure; (5) Botswana culture and agriculture; (6) awareness and shift of agriculture in Botswana; and (7) perspectives on values and motivations. Women who seek leadership opportunities, specifically those in the agricultural industry, would benefit from understanding how the participants of this study first became inspired and how they were encouraged to seek out advancement in their chosen career path. These shared experiences can communicate a framework for women who are inspired to lead in the agricultural industry – particularly in international settings.


The past few decades saw the emergence of many female leaders in agricultural professions (Brawner et. al, 2020; Kleihauer et al, 2012; Stephens et al., 2018). These leaders have overcome numerous obstacles, yet their tenacity and persistence yielded success within their industry. However, the published literature was nearly devoid of case studies outlining the barriers that they overcame, and the leadership skills needed to obviate the roadblocks (Carroll et al., 2021; Cline et al, 2019; Frankel et al, 2023; Kleihaur et. al, 2013). Our heuristic approach evaluated successful Batswana female entrepreneurs through lengthy face-to-face interviews and observations in their workplaces. Documentation of their successes and leadership skillsets could provide groundwork for assisting females in leadership development in an emerging African nation.

In Botswana, the dominance hierarchies that existed were those related to realities and relationships between those of humans and animals. (Hovorka, 2012). Historically, Batswana women were perceived socially as housewives and expected to bear children, and those who could not bear children held a lesser societal status (Ntseane, 2004). This value system also existed in the agricultural sector. While women were historically seen as rural caretakers, Botswana men were offered the luxury of raising cattle — as more or less a sole occupation —because they were seen as suitable to raise the prominent commodity associated with wealth —cattle (Horvorka, 2012). Recently, new urban and commercial agriculture spaces have emerged, empowering women as poultry producers, albeit in varying ways and with varying outcomes, relative to their initial positionalities and relative to men and cattle respectively. Therefore, “gender and species status, roles, places and use values in Botswana are inherently dynamic and offer avenues for symbolic and material re-positioning” (Hovorka, 2012, p. 879).

The empowerment of women in Botswana has led to increased interest and presence of women in the agricultural labor force in Botswana, specifically in urban agriculture (Crush et al., 2011). From 1990 to 2019, the percentage of women involved in Botswana’s labor force increased from 49.8% to 68.5% (The World Bank, 2020). Despite these labor force changes, women in Botswana were considered poor, as a higher proportion of female-headed households were considered poor or very poor (Government of Botswana, 2020).

While the Botswana Government has expressed commitment to gender equality, they are still experiencing difficulty implementing appropriate initiatives (Botlhale, 2020). Further, institutional-level initiatives have been found insufficient in changing deeply rooted ideologies pertaining to the roles of women (Botlhale, 2020). As such, initiatives at the village level may hold promise for enhancing women’s empowerment in Botswana (Must & Horvorka, 2019). The results of this study can assist policy moves that can further raise status of women in Botswana.

Currently, the overall governmental economic initiatives in Botswana revolve around diamonds, but more efforts are being made to increase access to technical education and initiatives in tourism and agriculture (Reuters Staff, 2018). However, the overall decision-making in Botswana has been influenced by males, which has hindered the ability of women to advance or have significant influence on national decisions (Government of Botswana, 2020). Therefore, this study was undertaken to provide insight into a workforce that displays diversity, productivity, and quality by describing women’s experiences on each of their journeys, and how they are aspiring to reach their leadership goals within the agricultural industry in Botswana.

Theoretical Framework

Situational and authentic leadership theories guided this study. Situational leadership was derived from the idea by Hersey and Blanchard (1972). The model is constructed to focus on the maturity of the individual who is being supervised. Maturity is defined as “the capacity to set high but attainable goals, willingness and ability to take responsibility, and education and/or experience of an individual or a group” (p. 161). The model is divided into quadrants and represents an individual’s personality and how the individual progresses as he/she matures. The first quadrant, high task/low relationship, represents an individual that is more concerned with the tasks to be accomplished, and is not concerned with the personal feelings of their cohorts. An individual that is concerned with the task of a project but also takes into consideration the feelings of their cohorts represents the second quadrant, high task and relationship. An individual who is concerned with their cohort’s personal feelings rather than completing the task represents the third quadrant, low task and high relationship. An individual who is not concerned with the task of the project or the personal feelings of their cohorts represents the last quadrant, low task and relationship. Supervisors need to adjust their leadership style as the individual matures. In the context of this study, situational leadership is an applicable lens because every participant derived their leadership experience from a unique situation. Situational leadership theory can thus provide further insight into how participants’ unique backgrounds and positions explain their actions and interactions as leaders.

Authentic leaders are those “who are deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by other as being aware of their own and others’ values/morals perspectives knowledge and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and of high moral character” (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 321). The key components of an authentic leader are positive psychological capital, positive moral perspective, leader self-awareness, leader self-regulation, leadership process/behaviors (positive modeling, support self-determination, personal and social identification), follow self-awareness, follower self-regulation, follower development, organizational context, and performance (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). Researchers believed the women had evolved into authentic leaders through their life experiences; thus, the reason for utilizing the authentic leadership framework.

Purpose and Central Research Questions

The purpose of this study was to explore the leadership journeys of eight women in Botswana who are involved in production agriculture. The central research questions asked were: (1) What lived experiences helped you obtain your agricultural position; and (2) What leadership characteristics do you identify as essential in your success?

Methods and Procedures

To fully comprehend the experiences participants shared, the current study was performed using the qualitative mode of inquiry (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The qualitative approach is justified in that it seeks to understand the phenomenon (Flick, 2014) of women’s experiences of their leadership journeys. A phenomenological approach was utilized to gain entry into the conceptual world of the women in order to understand how and what meaning they construct from their childhood, adulthood, personal, work, and leadership experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). This approach is appropriate because the researchers explored a phenomenon and what the Botswana women experienced in agriculture.

The participants for this study consisted of eight women in agriculture from Gaborone and Mabalane, Botswana, two contrasting population settings. Mabalane is a small village (population~1,000); Gaborone is the capital city (population ~250,000). The reason only eight women were selected was due to researchers limited duration in country and we wanted ample face-to-face interaction with each participant. These women were individually identified from an international non-profit (Dream Academy) and consultation with the Botswana University of Agricultural and Natural Resources faculty who worked in community outreach. These women were considered leaders amongst their peers in their selected agriculture venue and had received recognition for their innovation in commercial agriculture sector. The women were middle-aged, urban and rural backgrounds, and they were all engaged in production agriculture. In an effort to protect the identity of the women, there will be limited background information given about the participants and participant numbers were assigned (Woman 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8).

The methods employed to collect data in this study included: (a) interviews, (b) field observations, and (c) documents and pictures. Gathering information in this manner provided the researchers with a bank of data from which themes could be created, interpretations made, and a “rich, full picture of a research situation” painted (Wright 2003, p. 8). Interviews were three hour in-depth, audio-taped interviews, in which the primary researchers asked open-ended, non-leading questions (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The central research questions focused on having each woman explain her journey (past and present) to her current leadership role. Based on each interview, follow-up questions were asked but based on the flow of the interview, some follow-up questions were unique to each individual. The interviews focused on revealing the influences and experiences that helped to develop each woman into the leader she is today. This open-ended approach enabled the researchers to gain an understanding related to each woman’s unique lived experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Observations were conducted before, during, and after the interview sessions by individuals involved with the research project and included taking detailed notes on body language, word descriptions and analysis, and behavior related to the interview and discussions opportunities (eating supper with participant, guided tours, etc.). Additionally, the researchers were participant observers for one to five days in each woman’s environment; the number of days spent with each participant was dependent upon that participant’s personal schedule. A participant observer interacts with the participants in the environment, so they can experience the environment like the participant (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Lastly, documents (articles, accolades, etc.) that were collected by researchers were related to each woman’s lived experiences. These included pictures of the participants accomplishments, family photos, work experiences, and so forth.

Data were analyzed and coded by five researchers independently. The interview transcriptions were open-coded to discover the main concepts and categories (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The researchers analyzed the in-depth interviews, along with the researchers’ field notes, which captured the thoughts related to the women agriculturists and their environment. These field notes were used in the data analyses to assist the researchers in recalling what had occurred during the field experience. Furthermore, data were examined using several methods including: identifying significant statements and elements of meaning; creating textural and structural descriptions; and recognizing descriptions which revealed commonalities among the participants’ experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The researchers then discussed each individual’s coding schematic and agreed upon seven themes: (1) journey in agriculture; (2) networking and mentoring learning initiatives; (3) leadership and management, (4) family structure; (5) Botswana culture and agriculture; (6) awareness and shift of agriculture in Botswana; and (7) perspectives values and motivations. The journey in agriculture was further divided into two sub-themes: (a) significant family experience and how they were raised; and (b) initial agricultural entrepreneurship. The networking and mentoring learning initiatives included two sub-themes: (a) social media; and (b) mentors. Leadership and management was further divided into three sub-themes: (a) leadership style; (b) employee relations; and (c) values and trust. Botswana culture and agriculture had two sub-themes: (a) personal challenges with being a female in the industry and (b) successes. Awareness and shift of agriculture in Botswana was divided into three sub-themes: (a) culture; (b) how Botswana views women in agriculture; and (c) how women in Botswana view agriculture.

In an effort to reduce the impact of bias on the data collected, several validation strategies were employed to document the accuracy of this phenomenological research study. Credibility was established through prolonged engagement in the field and the triangulation of data sources, methods, and investigators (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). From the researchers’ observations, thick descriptions of the women’s life experiences and environments were constructed to help readers determine the transferability of the research. Dependability of the study was established through peer-review by another researcher trained in qualitative analysis who had not conducted the interviews. Additionally, member checks from participants related to data, analyses, interpretations, and conclusions were conducted to confirm credibility of the study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Subjectivity Statement

Prior to launching the study, the eight female researchers reflected on qualities possessed which may have impacted the relationship with women in the study. The researchers hold a strong passion for agriculture and women in the agricultural field, which may result in a more focused analysis on each woman’s journey to their current leadership position. The researchers consist of three full professors, two associate professors, two assistant professors, and one graduate student who are all involved in the agriculture field. Each female involved in the research of this study analyzed the data and have moderate feminist beliefs. To keep a neutral viewpoint and impartial position, the researchers reflected on their biases of the research topic, assumptions of the outcomes of the study, and each occasion of contact with the women agriculturists. In addition, the researchers structured main and probing questions in a way that did not lead the women in their responses.


Theme One: Journey in Agriculture

The women interviewed were immersed in agriculture learning experiences through their family, which later shaped views and perceptions of the world in which they live and launching them as leaders in their chosen industry. The following results are divided into two sub-themes: (1) significant family experience and upbringing, and (2) initial agriculture entrepreneurship.

Women 1, 2, 7 and 8 explained it was normal for children in their culture to be involved in farming, whether it was milking cows, rearing pigs, or growing a garden. For example, Woman 7 expressed that her love for horticulture came from her mother, because they always had a garden, would plant any fruits or vegetables they could get, and lived by the saying, “anything that you plant, grows.” While it is normal for those currently involved in agriculture to have been raised in a farm setting, three of the eight women interviewed had not been directly exposed to the agricultural industry through their childhood. Instead, their passion for agriculture evolved in adulthood. Woman 3 explained:

I am 28 years old. I grew up in the city, so farming was sort of a luxury to me. I used to live in a flat growing up, so we mostly just seen (sic) vegetables and meat in stores. Then on some holidays my Mom would take us to our grandparents’ house, and then we would go to the farm, which was a surreal experience for me because of growing up in the city.

Not only did some of these women grow up in the city which hindered their exposure to agriculture, but Woman 8 revealed:

I am the first born of four kids, raised by a single mother. I grew up, my whole life in Gaborone, so normally and culturally the farm was always put on the father. Since we had a single mother, we found that we did not get to have a lot of that experience. Because I had a grandfather who had a farm, we would go there and then just come back home because it was right outside of Gaborone. So, I never really got to experience that farm life because I more or less grew up as a city girl. I was fine with it, but when I had my own kids, they did not know anything about animals, and my husband and I discussed that we did not want to live the farm life because of our educational backgrounds.

Although some of these women did not experience agriculture throughout their upbringing, each had an internal passion to pursue a career in agriculture. Four out of the eight women interviewed explained they started their careers not actively involved in the agricultural industry, but began in the agriculture industry due to outside influences who emphasized the importance of agriculture. Woman 5 explained:

I did not see a reason of going to school to do what is already in me, so I did not go to school to do agriculture because we do agriculture ourselves. That is our everyday life. I am beginning to develop a big interest, and in fact the reason why I was invited here is because I asked help (sic) to start a farm. I want a farm and I want to do small stock, like goats, sheep and possibly chickens. It has been in me and I do not know why, but it has been in me and I want to do it. I am determined to do it and to keep small stock, and that is my interest. The plowing part of it is vegetables.

However, some women interviewed initially pursued careers in agriculture. Women 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 have become successful agriculturists in their specific fields, including poultry, crops and even a petting farm. For example, Woman 8 revealed she wanted to have her own orchard because her grandmother was involved in the agricultural industry and enjoyed it. However, she soon realized her passion for impacting youth through building a petting farm and expressed she “loved what she saw” when she dug deeper into the petting zoo agricultural field.

Theme Two: Networking and Mentoring Learning Initiatives

There are developing networking and mentoring initiatives in Botswana. The eight women interviewed described their networking initiatives mainly existed through WhatsApp and social media sites. However, forming support groups is often difficult due to competitive environments. Woman 3 elaborates:

I have it on social media. The only problem with that is, I am going to group us all into this problem as Botswana we do not like sharing, so we have a problem with that. We have a problem with getting an association together because one farmer may have more chickens than all of us, so if we had to get supply, he would get the supply first. Another problem is getting together, not necessarily stealing ideas, but we are all feeding our chicks the same thing..

Mentoring others in the field of agriculture is slightly new in Botswana. The interpretation from the women interviewed was agriculturists mainly did their own thing. Woman 1:

This (mentoring) is something that is quite new to us because we have been very fragmented as a community in terms of the farming thing. But just recently realized that there are farmers that I did not know were out there that are coming on board and sharing ideas, it is really great. But we did not have that at all. And I think that’s been one of the downfalls of Botswana agriculture, was that   there was not this cohesive group of people, everybody was doing their own thing.

Woman 1 also described that agriculture is on the rise due to agricultural specialists and the mentoring they provide. “There is a chain of agricultural shops here in the country that have some agricultural specialists, which is something we have not had, and they have started a group and there is loads of information coming through on that. “So agriculture is really on the rise here.” However, if you are new to the agricultural industry some women may find it difficult to be accepted into the agricultural circles. Woman 2 explained:

In each and every district, there is an agricultural office. So on our side, there is an agricultural office, but we are supposed to have an association. We will often times find that within an association, those people that have been there before, they make it difficult for other people to join. They often say, ‘Oh I do not know how you are supposed to join’, but it is often the head of the association who is saying that. They say this because they do not want other outside people to join because they want to sell within their own farms and not against contenders (Woman 2).

All eight women believed mentoring was important and needed, especially for young people. However, most agreed mentoring may cause competition within the industry. Woman 8 explained, “mentoring is good, we are just not sure if it will create competition that we are just not looking for.”

Theme Three: Leadership and Management

All eight of these women have seized a leadership role within the agricultural industry. Each woman has a unique leadership style they have developed throughout their journey, and from their experiences as leaders, they also have gained a better understanding of their values. The following results are divided into three sub-themes: (a) leadership style, (b) employee relations, and (c) values and trust.

When asked to describe their leadership style, the women’s responses were diverse. For example, Women 4 stated:

I would say that I am born leader. Yes, I was born a leader. I’ve always been showing          that, even at home. As a first born, you are a leader. You are just a born leader because                         you are leading a family. I ended up developing the leadership skills not at school, but at home because I had to lead my family and lead my siblings. I am just a born leader, and        apart from that, I think the Lord has also just given me that leadership role. Even at     church, the Lord has given me that leadership role.

Whereas, Women 1 expressed she believes in trained leadership.

I feel like I train them and then I give them space, but I show them the value of the customer. Teaching them how to talk with them and interact with them, especially being patient with the children. We have a Facebook page where we receive a lot of comments and questions, so I motivate them to interact with the customers and realize that when they get comments about the staff being amazing, they are not talking about me they are talking about you…Train them, give them space, and tell them that I trust them. If they have challenges, I let them know that I am here.

However, their answers were similar in terms of outlook on leadership and their positional power in the agricultural industry. Woman 2:

I would say my approach is effective. I would call myself a good leader becausebefore, I was working under other people, so I started to tell myself that I wanted to do something different. So, the people that I am above, I am going to make sure I listen to them, and that is what made the difference… I always say to them “I want you to be yourself when you do your job.” I only advise if I feel that is not going to work, but what I normally do is that I lay everything out on the table and then from there, I say “do it the way that you can do it.” After that, I just add what needs to be added

These eight women also have to be effective leaders of those with whom they work and interact, such as their employees or customers. For example, Woman 5 further explained how she cannot serve as a true leader to others until she defines her own leadership abilities:

I lead not because I am at the top; leadership is not about being at the top. You can lead from there, but you can also lead from the bottom. You can lead this and any organization even if you are not the secretary or the president, but you lead from the bottom up. You make sure you are leading others properly because you are leading from the bottom. You do not have to have a title to be a leader. Also, if you cannot lead your own life, then you cannot lead other people. You have to start with your own life and lead your life. Once you start leading in your own life, that is when you can lead other people and help other people.

Most of the women exhibited strong relationships with their employees, as they depend on employee support and work ethic in order to have a successful business. Woman 1 further explained she did not attend college and study agriculture, but her staff has been helpful about positively growing the business. However, some of the women explained difficulties in recruiting and retaining reliable and effective staff members. For example, Woman 3 expressed “we are not your friend nor your parent, you are here to work…It is often difficult to train and keep some of the employees.”

Not only did these eight women have the passion to strive to be successful at what they do, but they valued and put trust into their employees. Some of these women have a weakness when it comes to putting their full trust into their staff while staying loyal to their values, such as Woman 2 who stated she can be too forgiving and lenient at times because she is afraid to get rid of staff who have an unfortunate homelife. Woman 1, however, has customer values in mind when she explained how she strived to keep her business open 365 days a year to make it more appealing and beneficial. Woman 8 revealed being able to depend on and trust your staff, ultimately impacts the customers and the outcome of the business.

I think that one of the things, especially when you own a business, that you will always not be there. I have to trust that things will go, and we have to communicate. If we have young people, staff need to go on their level, talk their language and be with them. We are also very hands-on. It is also special to receive ideas from my staff as well, and I make sure I show my appreciation.

Theme Four: Batswana Family Structure

Woman 3 stated:Agriculture for these eight women involves family and/or is a family operation. “I was excited because I got time to spend with my mother, a lot of time, and it is just very peaceful when you are in an agricultural environment opposed to the hustle and bustle of the city. So that is where I found my new love and passion. I have moved to the farm and I am raising my son there” . In addition, the women spoke highly of their children’s love for agriculture. “I have four kids, three girls and one boy. My boy is someone who is active. We have got chickens at home right now and he is feeding them, and tomorrow he is going to the land to help my mother (Woman 6). Woman 8 expressed that she has two children and “They are really hands-on and they love it [agriculture]…They are always out here helping and getting to know things, and it is really like a family business.”

Some of the women were married and the others were not. However, of the married women, spousal support was crucial to their success in agriculture. Woman 2 stated:

I will say, he is supportive because he knows I do not like driving. When my kids were still in school, and they were in school while I was working, he use(d) to drive me to the farm. Even now sometimes, he will drive me out to the chicken house and even though he does not get out, he still drives me because he knows I do not like to drive.

Woman 1 even commented how she could not operate her agricultural business without her spouse. “I was just saying we could not operate without him. There is a lot of mechanical stuff that does go on, and obviously he is a mechanic at trade and is extremely hands-on. He has his own business, but he is very hands-on with what is going on here.” Woman 8 classified herself as a lucky girl due to her spouse’s support and commitment to her agricultural initiatives.

Theme Five: Botswana Culture and Agriculture

Women agriculturists in Botswana recognized the culture in which they were raised was different than the current cultural climate. These changes have greatly impacted them personally and professionally as challenges and successes have surfaced. The following results were divided into two sub-themes: (a) personal challenges and (2) successes by being a female in the industry.

Most of the women interviewed described Botswana as a difficult country in which to reside because of how they are viewed and treated as agriculturists. Although these women were striving to make a change for other women and youth seeking to be successful agriculturists within the industry, Botswana was making it difficult for them. Woman 3 explained how each part of the industry was viewed differently in Botswana depending on their gender and capability. Woman 3:

Well in the poultry industry, they have made it deserving for women and for the other industries, we can penetrate them but they are mainly for men, like the cows, pork and goats, and yes women can get into them, but we are always put on the backburner. “No women cannot do that.” ‘It’s too much work.’ ‘It’s tough and dangerous.’ ‘You can go try chickens.’ Well they say that it is easier. It is less labor intensive.

Woman 4 also revealed her thoughts on how Botswana was influencing women and the agricultural industry. Woman 4:

Yes, it is men driven. However, women are still going to trade shows and exhibitions where we get to meet with different people from different areas and at different angles. We are also trying to show to other women and youth that they should also come up to these events, and show them how it can help them …The problem is that the government and the associations are not supporting these grants, even though that is where it all starts.

These women have overcome most of the challenges that being a female agriculturist in Botswana presents, and they often achieve great success as women leaders within the agricultural industry. Woman 1 illuminated how food outlets and large customers have helped her business and has brought her successful cash flow. Woman 1 now has the ability to produce and distribute more agricultural products. In addition, Woman 4 expressed advancing her agriculture practice:

There was this occasion that had come up from the government about granting land for tomatoes, so I sort of was juggling and fate just helped me decide to grow tomatoes for about 10 months. Because it was really hard work, I learned that if you can plant a tomato you can do anything. I am actually thinking of doing dairy, but for beginners I want to do chickens, eggs and then broilers.

Theme Six: Awareness and Shift of Agriculture in Botswana

The eight women interviewed have been influenced and impacted by the agricultural industry. The following results are divided into the sub-themes culture, how Botswana views women in agriculture, and how women in Botswana view agriculture.

Botswana’s culture and the women involved in agriculture also have a significant impact on the industry and how the country utilizes its agricultural services. There are some difficulties women in Botswana have faced regarding financial support for their operations, specifically with government funding. Woman 3 further highlighted the problems she has faced trying to request funds from the government to bolster her facility in the agricultural industry.

Yes, it is men driven. However, women are still going to trade shows and exhibitions where we get to meet with different people from different areas and at different angles. We are also trying to show to other women and youth that they should also come up to these events, and show them how it can help them.

She explains bank loans are considered excessively competitive as the government searches for certain criteria the women must meet, and because it is a competition for funds, women can only apply every four years around election season when they have completed the voting process.

There seems to be an alignment of similarities between how Botswana views women in agriculture and how women in Botswana view agriculture, such as overcoming gender stereotypes and cultural differences. However, the women interviewed for this study reported progress in starting to receive the recognition they deserve. Amongst the women interviewed, most of them agreed that it can be difficult working in the industry as gender specifications seem to be a priority in production agriculture, but women were beginning to overcome these assumptions. Woman 7 explained her thoughts on men versus women in the industry.

Back in the olden days, to me men had always been at the forefront as pertaining to farming. What has changed now is the fact that we now live in a world where men are dominating especially in the work environment, finances, and opportunities to obtain resources. Now that farming has become commercial and a lot of money is being made, a lot more men are becoming more interested because they are in better positions. They are in better positions when it comes to getting financing and buying resources needed, it’s definitely changing. Unlike before when it was the women who were not going into the field in order to take care of the children, women are now starting to milk the cows and the goats, go harvest wheat and more.

In Botswana, women were beginning to initiate leadership roles in the agricultural industry as they inspired those around them through impacting the younger generations. Woman 8 revealed her positive outlook on how women in Botswana view agriculture, and how they are starting to overcome obstacles that once held women back in the industry.

I want to believe there is a positive outlook on it, mainly because it is something that is part of our culture. In our cultural background, we have roles for men and women. You will find that with the rise of single mothers, the balancing is done in everything they do. Women are now fulfilling both roles. In Botswana, anybody can do anything. For example, I know a single girl who is a cattle farmer. You can find the opportunities here for women are open.

Theme Seven: Perspectives on Values and Motivations

Most of the women interviewed overcame obstacles from the industry, government, and other businesses to achieve their leadership positions. They had done so by staying faithful to who they were in terms of values and beliefs. Each participant expressed how difficult it can be to face the agricultural industry as a woman. They also shared how relying on their faith and following through with practices they value had the power to keep them motivated to spread knowledge and positivity to those who can make the industry successful in the future.

The values and motivations the of women interviewed also align with their faith perspectives. Most of these women valued trust amongst those with whom they work, their customers, and both the economy and agricultural industry in Botswana. Woman 4 explained how she is preparing for a successful future for not only her business, but as well as herself as she prepares to retire. Woman 4:

Because I was raising these broilers, I want to help with food security and the economy of the county. I am helping by supplying to others, and by being able to do this business management, I have become very proud of myself. And I am starting to build my business back up, for now just to get by, but also for when I retire.

In order to have a successful future in the industry, these women also have motivational desires that will help them grow personally and professionally. Not only do their families and businesses motivate them to do better, but they have achieved individual goals that have pushed them to take on new challenges that have eventually made them successful. Woman 5 explained how you must be the motivator in all aspects of your life in order to build up yourself and those around you. Woman 5:

As a leader, you are the strength of people and because you are their strength… you cannot crash. When you have crashed or when your strength has crashed, where now do others look? Who do they look up to? What is left? Knowing that people are looking up to you, it gives you that energy.

Another great example is Woman 3, who is hoping and working toward taking over for mother when she steps down. She said, “Well, hoping that my mother steps down and that I can take it… When she steps down and when she cannot do it, I will ready to take over.” 


The findings and conclusions from this study were supported by interviews, observations, artifacts collected by the research team while in Botswana. The women developed a niche within their agricultural commodity group and this drove each woman, once established within her field, to be passionate and authentic leaders (Avolio & Gardner, 2004). Also, the eight women highlighted unique views of leadership which include being a positive contributor to the industry; searching for inspiration; encouragement to others; passion about the industry; leading by example; and providing motivation to others. These findings were supported by previous research related to women in agriculture (Brawner et. al, 2020; Kleihauer et al, 2012; Stephens et al., 2018).  Furthermore, these women have cultivated personal leadership tactics through lived experiences and time spent in the agricultural industry, similar to the previous research by Brawner et al., 2020.

The women represented a broad range of production agricultural industries (e.g., animal husbandry and horticultural practices) in Botswana. These findings emphasize participants shared lived experiences of leadership, personal and professional challenges, awareness and shifts in Botswana agriculture, and perspectives on faith and values. Other additional values that influence one’s lived situational experiences were environmental conditions and events and influences of learning experiences contribute to career decision making (Hersey & Blanchard, 1976). Moreover, the situational leadership experience and environment in which a woman is raised can influence and shape her career journey, as well as impact leadership aspirations, similar to previous research studies (Brawner et. al, 2020; Kleihauer et al, 2012; Kleihauer et al., 2013; Stephens et al., 2018).

Women who seek leadership opportunities, specifically those in the agricultural industry, would benefit from understanding how the participants of this study first became inspired and how they were encouraged to seek out advancement in their chosen career path. These shared experiences can communicate a framework for woman who are inspired to lead in the agricultural industry – particularly in international settings. Understanding one’s own journey provides the opportunity for reflection on self-value, and recognition of how to work with and lead others. Furthermore, acknowledgement of women in agriculture as leaders can provide a pipeline to expose and foster other women’s pursuit of agricultural careers.

The eight women in this study strived to accumulate and utilize their unique and desired traits and were faced with the difficult decisions of balancing family roles and fighting for success in the industry. As expressed by Woman 8, “You will find that with the rise of single mothers, the balancing is done in everything they do. Women are now fulfilling both roles.” These eight women had not only faced challenges within their leadership roles, but dealt with interpersonal struggles within the industry. They strived to engage with community partners to form shared networks, inspire other women, and organize knowledge acquisition.

Study participants expressed concern with the opportunities for improved knowledge and resources acquired for present and future women agriculturists. Woman 4 detailed, “Nowadays, I think women should just go out there and try new things because we are capable and we can do it.” Their faith, values, and culture, propel them to encourage, engage, and energize others to develop and enhance their leadership potential in agriculture across Botswana. Last, new leadership initiatives must understand the cultural context of gender roles within agriculture and its intersection with faith and family values. It is obvious from these interviews that (1) leadership training for female headed enterprises is needed; (2) government programs should ensure that women leaders are equally qualified; and (3) that more agricultural extension programs should be developed that support women in agriculture.

Recommendations for Future Research

Future research questions to explore include (1) What are high school initiatives in Botswana related to recruiting females into non-traditional career fields? And (2) What are current youth programming initiatives for mentoring young females in agricultural fields in Botswana? and (3) What mentoring strategies are being effectively utilized to recruit and retain women in agriculture industry fields in Botswana?


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Investigating the Effects of Cognitive Style on the Small Gasoline Engines Content Knowledge of Undergraduate Students in a Flipped Introductory Agricultural Mechanics Course at Louisiana State University

Whitney L. Figland, Louisiana State University, wfigla2@lsu.edu

J. Joey Blackburn, St. Charles Community College, jblackburn@stchas.edu

Kristin S. Stair, Louisiana State University, kstair@lsu.edu

Michael F. Burnett, Louisiana State University, vocbur@lsu.edu

PDF Available


One of the greatest challenges that classroom teachers face has been fostering a learning environment that caters to the needs of diverse learners. Teachers have various teaching methodologies at their disposal, ranging from passive, teacher-centered to active, student-centered strategies. The flipped classroom approach allows for teachers to become the facilitator of learning activities and students to become actively engaged in the learning experience. This transition allows for more student-centered activities to occur in class that enhance students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Team-based learning (TBL) is a modified version of flipped classroom that allows students to work collaboratively to solve complex problems. Content knowledge has long been considered an important prerequisite of higher cognitive functions such as critical thinking, problem solving, and reflective thinking. The purpose of this exploratory study was to explain the effect of cognitive style on the small gasoline engines content knowledge of undergraduate students enrolled in a flipped introductory agricultural mechanics course at Louisiana State University. To test the hypotheses, this study utilized descriptive statistics, including the mean and standard deviation, and independent t-tests. A Mann-Whitney U test was employed to determine the influence of cognitive style on content knowledge. Overall, no differences in content knowledge were found. It is recommended to replicate this study longitudinally to increase statistical power. For practice, educators should employ learning strategies that meet the needs of students with diverse cognitive styles.

Introduction and Literature Review

One of the greatest challenges classroom teachers face has been fostering a learning environment that caters to the needs of diverse learners. To achieve this, teachers have a variety of teaching methodologies at their disposal, ranging from passive, teacher-centered methods to active, student-centered strategies (Schunk, 2012). One relatively new means of active engagement has been through the utilization of flipped classrooms. Some of the first flipped classroom models can be seen emerging into secondary and post=secondary education in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (Frederickson et al., 2005; Strayer, 2007; U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Baker (2000) presented his early version of the “classroom flip” as a new method of teaching that was made possible by an increase in the need for new educational methodologies that better engage learners and the increase in instructional technology availability (p. 4). Similarly, Lage et al. (2000) developed the “inverted classroom” model to invert the classroom structure and better engage students during class (p. 32). In both models, it was suggested to move instructional lecture material out of the classroom and make it available online, thus using class time for the professor to serve as a guide to assist students while providing increased time for application and practice (Baker, 2000; Lage et al., 2000). Over the past two decades, the flipped classroom approach has gained increased attention in secondary and post-secondary education for its student-centered approach and increased emphasis on engagement (Barkley, 2015; McCubbins et al., 2018).

The flipped classroom model allows teachers to become the facilitator of learning activities and the students to become actively engaged in the learning process while still focusing on delivering course content (Connor et al., 2014). This transition can allow for more student-centered activities during class to enhance students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Allen et al., 2011; Hanson, 2006). Additionally, active learning strategies promote a student-centered learning environment by creating opportunities for students to solve problems in a real-world context (Michealsen & Sweet, 2008; Sibley & Ostafichuk, 2015).

In recent years, a new type of flipped classroom has emerged as a version of a traditionally flipped classroom; team-based learning (TBL). TBL has emerged as a flipped classroom technique that allows students to work collaboratively to solve complex problems during class time (Michealsen & Sweet, 2008; Wallace et al., 2014). Similar to traditional flipped classroom models, TBL is a student-centered approach that shifts instruction away from a traditional lecture format to create a student-centered learning environment (Artz et al., 2016; Nieder et al., 2005). In a TBL-formatted course, students take on the responsibility of learning conceptual knowledge outside of class and spend more time applying that knowledge in class as a part of a team (Michaelsen et al., 2004). Essentially, TBL is formatted to provide students with opportunities to learn declarative and procedural knowledge to enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008). One aspect of TBL that sets it apart from the traditional flipped classroom is its increased emphasis on accountability (Michaelson et al., 2004). An essential element of TBL is the administration of Individual Readiness Assurance Tests (IRATS) and Team Readiness Assurance Tests (TRATS) that serve as formative assessments after each module to ensure students have engaged with the material.

Despite the many possible applications of TBL to agricultural education, research supporting its use in agricultural education has been limited. McCubbins et al. (2016) conducted a study to examine student perceptions of TBL in an agricultural education capstone course. The findings suggested that students had a positive view of TBL and were highly satisfied with the student-centered learning environment (McCubbins et al., 2016). This study also indicated that working in teams positively impacted student motivation to learn in a collaborative setting (McCubbins et al., 2016). A similar study conducted by McCubbins et al. (2018) found that TBL in agricultural education courses supported the development of critical thinking, motivation to learn, and ability to effectively apply course concepts by undergraduate students. Focusing specifically on agricultural mechanics, a course typically heavily focused on problem solving, Figland et al. (2020a) reported that undergraduate students perceived that TBL supported the development of problem-solving skills and promoted positive collaboration between group members while increasing student self-efficacy in the content area.

The ability to increase critical thinking and problem-solving skills cannot be developed exclusively by integrating specific teaching methods. Instead, the education literature has supported the notion that the cognitive styles of students in classes and educational teams can influence the ability of students to problem solve effectively (Myers & Dyer, 2006; Parr & Edwards, 2004; Thomas, 1992; Torres & Cano, 1994; Torres & Cano, 1995; Witkin et al.,1977). Cognitive styles have typically been defined as an individual’s preferred way of organizing and retaining information to solve problems (Keefe, 1979; Kirton, 2003). The awareness of a student’s cognitive style can be an important factor in the success of their ability to solve problems (Jonassen, 2000; Witkin et al., 1977). In agricultural education, Blackburn et al. (2014) and Lamm et al. (2011) concluded that before educators can understand how to tailor lessons to teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills effectively, they must be aware of varying cognitive styles and understand how to relate those cognitive styles to successful problem solving and critical thinking development. To better understand how problem solving can be developed within agricultural education coursework, cognitive style, and innovative teaching methods can be utilized to develop students’ critical thinking ability (Figland et al., 2020b).

Theoretical Framework

Kirton’s (2003) adaptation-innovation theory (A-I theory) served as the theoretical foundation of this study to aid in furthering the understanding of how critical thinking ability can be tied to TBL teaching methodologies. A-I theory is grounded on the premise that all people are creative and can solve problems, regardless of their preferred cognitive style (Kirton, 2003). Per the theory, cognitive style is a person’s preferred way to think, learn, and solve problems (Kirton, 2003). An individual’s cognitive style is measured through Kirton’s adaption-innovation inventory (KAI). KAI scores that fall below the mean are considered more adaptive, while scores above the mean are more innovative. However, it is important to note that the scale is a continuum, and individuals are never purely adaptive or purely innovative (Kirton, 2003). In other words, two people can have scores below the mean, indicating they are more adaptive compared to the normal distribution of scores, but the individual with the higher score is considered more innovative than the other.

When comparing the more adaptive and innovative, several key distinctions exist in how these individuals prefer to learn and solve problems. More adaptive individuals prefer well-established problems and favor working within the current problem structure (Kirton et al., 1991). These individuals collaborate well with group members and generate ideas that favor consensus (Kirton, 2003). On the contrary, the more innovative prefer less structure to solve the problem and often challenge boundaries (Kirton, 2003; Lamm et al., 2012). More innovative individuals tend to stretch the boundaries of problems and generate ideas outside the current group structure (Kirton, 2003). Often, individuals falling more on the innovative side of the continuum tend to be novel and find different ways to solve problems. Whereas the more adaptive ones tend to be safer, more predictable, conforming, and less ambiguous when solving problems (Kirton, 1999, 2003).

Cognitive style is one’s preferred way of learning and engaging in problem solving tasks (Kirton, 2003). However, learners are often presented with situations in which they must learn or perform outside their preferred style. In these instances, individuals utilize coping behaviors to navigate the environment (Kirton, 2003). Often, this occurs in a setting where the person must work with individuals of diverse cognitive styles. Kirton (2003) described this as the Problem A and Problem B situations. For example, consider students assembled into a team to complete a group project. Problem A is the group assignment, while Problem B is how well the group can navigate their diverse cognitive styles to perform the task.

Little research has existed in agricultural education that investigates the effects of cognitive style on student learning outcomes in a flipped learning environment. A-I theory postulates that cognitive style is unrelated to cognitive capacity; however, little literature has been advanced in agricultural education examining this notion. Further, no literature was found that tested this hypothesis in a flipped classroom setting. As a result, the principal question that arose after reviewing the literature was: How does cognitive style effect the small gasoline engine content knowledge of undergraduate students enrolled in a flipped introductory agricultural mechanics course at Louisiana State University?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this exploratory study was to explain the effect of cognitive style on small gasoline engine content knowledge of undergraduate students enrolled in a flipped introductory agricultural mechanics course at Louisiana State University.

The following null hypotheses guided this study:

H01: There were no statistically significant differences in small gasoline engine content knowledge of undergraduate students in an introductory agricultural mechanics course based on cognitive style.


Data associated with this study were collected as a part of a larger research project that investigated students’ abilities to solve small gasoline engine-related problems. Specifically, a one-group pretest-posttest pre-experimental design was employed to collect data for this research (Campbell & Stanley, 1963; Salkind, 2010). This design is used widely in educational research when all individuals are assigned to the experimental group and observed at two points (Campbell & Stanley, 1963; Salkind, 2010). The changes from the pre-test to the post-test determine the results from the intervention; however, in this design, there is no comparison group, making it almost impossible to determine if the change would have occurred only from the intervention and not from extraneous variables (Salkind, 2010). Extraneous variables must be considered and dismissed to make any generalizations between the interventions and change (Salkind, 2010).


The population of this study was all students who enrolled in an introductory agricultural mechanics course at Louisiana State University during the spring semester of 2018 (n = 17) and spring semester of 2019 (n = 15). Overall, one student in the spring semester of 2018 did not complete enough course material to be included in the study; therefore, the participating sample totaled n = 31. Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was sought and granted. Per IRB, students were notified of this research on the first day of class and were given the opportunity to opt out without penalty. All students were over 18 and elected to provide signed consent to participate in this research.

To test for homogeneity between semesters, independent sample t-tests were conducted on individual cognitive score, age, and students’ pre-course interest survey to determine if the groups were homologous. The t-test analysis found that there were not statistically significant differences between the 2018 and 2019 semesters and cognitive style (p = .109), age (p = .596), and pre-CIS (p = .062), respectively. To test for homogeneity, Levene’s test for equality of error variances was calculated and was not statistically significant; therefore, it was assumed that the variances were almost equal and the groups were similar.

Further, a Chi-Square test was employed to determine if differences existed between the two semesters based on gender (X2 = .313, df = 1, p = .576). Therefore, from the analysis, it is concluded that our population from both semesters was homologous, and subsequently, the data were merged for further data analysis.

While the course was offered through the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education and Evaluation at Louisiana State University, it was advertised throughout the college and university. Table one provides the personal and educational characteristics of students (n = 31) who enrolled in this course during the spring of 2018 or 2019. Overall, these students’ ages ranged from 18 to 24, with 19 (29.0%) and 21(29.0%) being the most reported ages. The majority (n = 17; 54.8%) of students were female, and sophomore (41.9%) was the most frequently reported academic classification.  In all, nine majors were represented in this course, with Agricultural and Extension Education being the most common (41.9%).


Kirton’s adaptation-innovation inventory (KAI) was used to determine students’ cognitive styles (Kirton, 2003). This instrument consisted of 32 items that asked questions about the individuals’ preferred way to learn. The KAI scores range from 32 to 160 on a continuum from more adaptive to more innovative, with a theoretical mean of 96 (Kirton, 2003). However, the practical mean of the KAI is 95 (Kirton, 2003). Therefore, individuals who score 95 or below are considered more adaptive, while those who score 96 or above are considered more innovative. The instrument has been successfully utilized to determine the cognitive style of a wide variety of individuals from varying backgrounds (Kirton, 2003). Internal reliability of this instrument has been measured through multiple studies. Kirton (2003) reported that after analyzing data from six different population samples with over 2,500 respondents that internal reliability coefficients ranged from .84 − .89. Also, 25 other studies that utilized the KAI showed reliabilities between .83 and .91 (Kirton, 2003).

Due to the nature of this pre-experimental study, it was important to determine the students’ knowledge in small gasoline engine content before and after the intervention. The researcher developed a 30-item criterion-referenced test to test the individual’s knowledge. It should be noted that half of the questions on this test were developed by Blackburn (2013) and further modified to meet the needs of this study. The other 15 questions were developed by the researcher based on the Small Engine Care & Repair textbook written by London (2003), a Small Engines Equipment and Maintenance textbook written by Radcliff (2016), and the Briggs and Stratton PowerPortal website. The criterion-referenced test was formatted using a four-option multiple-choice template, including one correct answer and three distractors. Guidelines offered by Wiersma and Jurs (1990) were followed to ensure the reliability of the criterion-referenced test. Table two provides the factors considered as well as how each was addressed.

Course Structure and Procedures

On the first day of the small gasoline engines unit, the KAI and the 30-item pretest were administered to the students. Due to using TBL as the primary teaching strategy, the students were grouped purposively by cognitive style into teams in which they would remain for the duration of the unit. Teams were developed as heterogeneous, homogeneous adaptive, or homogenous innovative. The course layout was formatted based on Michealsen and Sweet’s (2008) recommendations.

In the small gasoline foci, five individual modules were constructed, including (a) small engine tool and part ID, (b) 4-cycle theory and fuel, (c) ignition and governor systems, (d) cooling/lubrication system, and (f) troubleshooting. After each module, students completed an IRAT to determine their content knowledge retained. After completing the IRAT, the students would join their assigned team and complete the TRAT. During the TRATs, students were allowed to collaborate with other members to come to an agreement on items they may have gotten incorrect. The goal of completing the IRAT before the TRAT was to ensure that all group members of the team contributed equally. At the end of the small gasoline engine unit, the 30-item criterion-referenced test was administered.

Data Analysis

Descriptive statistics were utilized to test this study’s hypotheses, including means and standard deviations and independent sample t-tests. Independent sample t-tests are utilized to compare the means of two independent groups and determine if they are statistically significant. In this study, the t-tests were utilized to determine if the groups from the 2018 and 2019 semesters were homologous and could be merged for further data analysis. Further, Mann-Whitney U tests were employed to determine if there was a statistically significant difference between content knowledge and cognitive style.


The overall mean of the pretest was 15.58 (51.9%).  The mean of the more adaptive students pretest was 15.48 (51.6%), while the more innovative averaged 15.88 (52.9%). Regarding the post-test, the overall mean was 23.39 (77.9%). The more adaptive students’ average score was 22.96 (76.5%), and the mean post-test score of the more innovative students was 24.63 (82.1%), as presented in Table 5.

A Mann-Whitney U test was employed to determine if a statistically significant difference in content knowledge existed based on cognitive style. This test (see Table 6)determined no statistically significant differences in content knowledge by cognitive style (p = .292) at the .05 level.

Conclusion and Limitations

Overall, the statistical analysis revealed that cognitive style did not affect the small gasoline engine content knowledge of students enrolled in an introductory agricultural mechanics course at Louisiana State University. Therefore, the researchers failed to reject the null hypothesis. This conclusion aligns with the A-I theory in that cognitive style does not relate to cognitive capacity. In other words, one’s preferred style or manner of learning and problem solving does not influence the ability to learn or performance. Similarly, this research aligns with the findings of prior research that investigated factors influencing content knowledge achievement (Blackburn, 2013, 2014; Pate et al., 2004). However, these prior studies did not include a pretest measure of small gasoline engine content knowledge; therefore, they failed to account for pretreatment differences in content knowledge. Further, research should be conducted to compare the TBL method of teaching small gasoline engine content with direct instruction. Due to the lack of a comparison group, it is not known whether students in these semesters would have performed better or worse than similar students taught in a more traditional format. This type of research could allow practitioners greater confidence that, at a minimum, they are not impeding students learning by employing TBL in their classrooms.

This study was conducted during two spring semesters to increase the sample size to enhance statistical power. However, due to enrollment sizes and data attrition, the overall sample was only 31 students. Small sample sizes are a detriment to most parametric statistical tools; however, these data were tested for normality in SPSS. However, due to the low sample size, the statistical power of this research was inherently low, which increased the chance of committing Type-II errors.

An additional limitation of this study was the lack of random selection of participants. Due to the nature of using student enrollment in a particular class, caution must be given when interpreting the findings, and it cannot be generalized past the sample reported in this research. The introductory agricultural mechanics course was required for students majoring in agricultural and extension education and has become an increasingly popular elective for other majors across the university. Students not required to complete this course may have a higher mechanical aptitude or prior knowledge and/or experiences in the content areas, which may influence their performance in the course.


To increase statistical power, it is recommended that this research be extended for a minimum of three more semesters. Depending on enrollments, this would increase the sample size to more than 75 students. A sample size of 75 to 100 would sufficiently increase power. Further, additional variables such as mechanical aptitude should be assessed to determine the impact on content knowledge. Additionally, content knowledge should be utilized as an independent variable to determine its role in students’ problem-solving ability in authentic learning environments. Additional research should determine the effect of these diverse cognitive teams on the ability to generate hypotheses and solve authentic problems. Content knowledge could also be employed in a multiple regression model to determine its impact when hypothesizing and solving contextual problems.

Practitioners should be informed that cognitive styles influence how students prefer to learn and solve problems (Kirton, 2003) but are not related to how well a student learns. Teachers should strive to create learning environments conducive to diverse learners to ensure all students have an opportunity to learn (Roberts et al., 2020). As teachers provide opportunities for diverse learning styles – auditory, kinesthetic, and visual – they should provide opportunities geared toward the more adaptive and innovative problem-solving styles. This would ensure one style preference is not constantly required to employ coping behaviors to succeed. Post-secondary educators should consider TBL if they are interested in flipping an agricultural mechanics course. Results from this study indicated that, based on cognitive style, all students can learn successfully. Further, the use of frequent IRATs and TRATs ensures a level of accountability not normally found in traditional flipped classes.


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