Enhancing undergraduate agro-ecological laboratory employment through experiential learning

We piloted an educational model, the Sustainable Agriculture Scholars Program, linking research in organic agriculture to experiential learning activities for summer undergraduate employees in 2007 and 2008. Our objectives were to: (1) further student understanding of sustainable agriculture research, (2) increase student interest in sustainable agriculture careers, and (3) use community service as a vehicle for learning. The three learning environments were on-farm and laboratory research settings, weekly meetings and field trips to discuss research and observe farming practices, and a service-learning project. We collected feedback from participants through a post-program focus-group style evaluation in Year 1 and pre/post individual evaluations with participants and a non-participant comparison group in Year 2. Students learned about linkages between research and practice within all environments. Farm visits were the primary learning site, specifically through observations of sustainable agriculture practices related to lab work and interactions with farmers. Students described how farm visits made lab work relevant; however, there were few instances describing how lab work was relevant to farming communities. Our preliminary findings from this pilot study suggest that participation in the program led to increased interest in sustainable agriculture careers and increased desire to pursue research in some students.

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