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Teaching ag to teachers

Michael Bechtel
Associate professor Michael Bechtel, center, checks the eggs laid by Malaysian Serama chickens with students Genoa Gregg, left, and Michaela Dehli in his science education classroom at Wartburg College in Waverly. Bechtel works to incorporate agriculture into all of the lessons he uses to instruct future teachers. PHOTO / GARY FANDEL

Discussions in Michael Bechtel’s education classes at Wartburg College in Waverly typically go many directions as the high-energy professor helps his students explore teaching strategies that bring science to life. But Bechtel, who grew up on a farm in Allamakee County, always makes sure that his science lessons revolve around agriculture. 

“My goal for students is to think of agriculture first, so it’s not just an afterthought when they become teachers and dev­elop their lesson plans,” Bechtel said. “In my experience, farming was really not given much exposure in the classroom, and I wanted to change that.”

Education students at Wartburg have found that agriculture fits nicely into all kinds of science exploration, Bechtel said. Biology, health, the environment and a range of other science areas can all be covered using agriculture as a launching pad, he said.

Bechtel’s students agree. “I’ve never had a class that was so interesting and one that you were learning about things in the real world like this one,” said Michaela Dehli, a sophomore from Waukon who plans to pursue a career as a science teacher. “I think the lessons in agriculture will help me become a better teacher.”

Fits perfectly in stem

The focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in education today makes agriculture even more relevant, Bechtel said. “We call it STEAM here, because we always add agriculture to the mix,” he said.

Stephanie Tekippe, co-chair of Wartburg’s education department, said Bechtel’s push to add agriculture to the STEM mix is catching on with the college’s students. At a recent STEM conference on campus, it was the students’ idea to add the “a” and have the event center on agriculture, she said.

“Our students have gotten into the agriculture part in a big way,” Tekippe said. 

Incorporating ag into education classes, as Bechtel does, benefits both the future teachers and their students, said Will Fett, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.

“Preparing future teachers with the tools and resources they need is critical to their success and to their students’ success,” Fett said. “Incorporating agriculture just makes sense because of the countless connections between agriculture and science, social studies and other core subjects. The hands-on ap­­plication of agriculture in the curriculum makes learning fun — for students and their teachers.”

Bechtel is committed to blending agriculture into his science lessons, in part because he knows that so few of his students, even those from Iowa and other areas of the Midwest, have a natural connection to farming. 

“This is going to be the next group of teachers, so it's important that they know something about agriculture as they start their careers,” he said.
 
Realistic view of farming

It’s also important, Bechtel believes, to provide his students at the liberal arts college a realistic view of farming. He wants to help counter the often slanted or outdated views of farming that many students have when they first start his classes.

“I want students to know why farmers do what they do and why they care so much for their land and for their livestock,” Bechtel said. “It’s good business, and it is something that farmers feel strongly about.”

The professor makes sure students don’t just read about farming. Instead, his classes visit local farms, dairies, ethanol plants and other local agribusinesses to experience agriculture first-hand. 

“It’s better than just learning from books or websites. It’s just easier to make the connections if you have experienced it yourself,” Bechtel said.

First hand experience

Randy Heitz, a retired Iowa Farm Bureau regional manager, has helped Bechtel make connections with those farms and agribusinesses in Bremer and neighboring counties. 

“It’s really been a great way to help the students learn and to make sure that agriculture is truthfully represented,” Heitz said. “If we don’t help these future teachers learn about agriculture, who will?”

Having a solid background in STEM through agriculture also gives the Wartburg students an edge after college, Bechtel said. “They have knowledge and a niche that not a lot of students have, which will help them in the job market.”


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