By Jenny Lavey, MSU News Service
Joshua Toft, a sophomore from Somonauk, Illinois, and an agricultural education major, was recently designated as one of 12 national scholarship representatives who will serve as a Teach Ag Ambassador on behalf of the National Teach Ag Campaign. The campaign is an initiative of the National Council for Agricultural Education led by the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) to raise awareness of agricultural careers in education and to celebrate the positive contributions that agriculture teachers make in their schools and communities, according the NAAE.
Gwynn Simeniuk, a senior in agricultural education from Glasgow, was selected as one of 23 national participants in the Future Agriscience Teacher (FAST) Symposium, held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in September. Simeniuk also won a separate $1,500 national Upper Division Scholarship from the NAAE, the professional organization in the United States for agricultural educators. The scholarship was awarded to 25 national upper-level agricultural education majors to help offset expenses during their student teaching experience. The scholarship was based on academic performance and leadership and service activity, according to the NAAE. Simeniuk is planning to student teach in the spring.
“At the FAST Symposium, we had the opportunity to learn about national curriculum in agriculture, food and natural resources and practice inquiry-based instruction, which is exactly the type of professional development experience that MSU’s Division of Agricultural Education promotes to its students,” Simeniuk said. “The NAAE scholarship will advance my growth as a pre-service educator, and it’s an honor be recognized as an emerging agricultural educator. These awards are incredibly reflective of the quality of our professors and resources in ag-ed at MSU.”
Carl Igo, MSU agricultural education associate professor, said both Simeniuk and Toft will benefit greatly from the scholarships.
“This is the first time any agriculture education students from the university, to as my knowledge, have received these designations at the national level, so we’re very excited,” Igo said. “Not only are both students very motivated and worthy, (but) they help to shine a light on our agricultural education curriculum at MSU, which has national applicability in teaching development and career opportunity.”
As a designated Teach Ag Ambassador, Toft will spend the year receiving more than 20 hours of specialized training and professional development, which will help him build a network and enhance his knowledge and skills as he prepares to enter the classroom as a lifelong learner and educator, according to the National Teach Ag Campaign. As part of the scholarship, Toft attended and represented the campaign at the 2016 National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, in October.
Toft said the program has allowed him to work with agriculture industry professionals and hundreds of students in Montana and across the country.
“Being able to represent MSU on the national levels for FFA and agriculture has been a huge blessing, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of Dr. Perry and the entire ag ed division,” Toft said. “The ag ed division is like a family: they encouraged me to apply for the program’s ambassador project, and without their encouragement and support, I never would have had this great opportunity. Through the Teach Ag Campaign, I was able to network with agriculture educators and industry professionals from across the nation as well as share my experience with MSU and agriculture education with hundreds of students.”
Dusty Perry, MSU Division of Agricultural Education assistant professor, encouraged Toft to apply for the year-long program.
“I can’t think of a better student deserving of this scholarship and national development opportunity,” Perry said. “Joshua is the kind of student who goes above and beyond, searching for learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom at every turn. He’s going make an excellent educator.”
According to Tracy Dougher, head of the Division of Agricultural Education, the division became a designated State Teach Ag Results (STAR) partner this year, a statewide and national effort to increase recruitment and retention efforts for those in the agricultural education profession. Dougher said the STAR program is specifically designed to assist sates in creating sustainable and effective recruitment and retention plans. The agricultural teaching program has also increased its recruitment efforts statewide and saw a 19 percent growth increase in undergraduate enrollment from fall 2015 to fall 2016, Dougher said.
“There’s a state and national demand for diverse and qualified agricultural educators,” Dougher said. “At MSU, we’re trying to tailor our curricula and the agriculture teacher education experience not only to meet the workforce demand, but to produce excellent agricultural teachers so they can make a positive difference in ag classrooms across Montana and the country.”
The program hired a new faculty member in 2013, Perry, who teaches agricultural technology and mechanical systems with a laboratory management, small engine, electrical and rural farm focus. Perry is the recent recipient of an Agricultural Safety Education Initiative award from the National Institutes of Health and Colorado State University, totaling $196,615 over the next five years. The project’s long-term goal, according to Perry, is to understand how an agricultural machinery safety education program can provide a lasting impact on the behavioral and environmental health outcomes for youth working in agriculture in the high plains and intermountain western regions. Perry said the outcomes can potentially reduce machinery entanglements, tractor run-overs, tractor roll-overs, ATV collisions, ATV turn-overs, falls from dismounting equipment and vehicle collisions on rural roadways. The objective is to determine how local FFA leadership organizations can be leveraged to reduce interactions that working youth have with agricultural machinery and vehicle hazards.
According to the NAAE, more than 700 agricultural educators are expected to retire within the next three years. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates 57,900 high-skilled jobs are open in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environmental fields in the U.S., although there is only an average of 35,400 new U.S. graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agricultural-related fields.