This 600-Acre Classroom Is Providing Hands-on Education for Students

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Photo Credit: Thomas Sutherlin

Students at the new Indiana Agriculture & Technology School don’t sit behind their desks listening to teachers lecture all day. Their “classroom” is a 600-acre farm in Morgan County, where, on any given day, they might be raising chickens, tending to beef cattle, gardening or managing beehives.

“We are a blended model that combines virtual [online] learning with hands-on, project-based learning,” says Keith Marsh, executive director and chief academic officer at the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School. “Our students spend 48% of their time doing their academic and agriculture course work virtually. The other 52% of their time is being involved in face-to-face, project-based learning activities throughout the year that coincide with their academic work.”

©Journal Communications/Nathan Lambrecht

Preparing Students for Careers in Agriculture

The public charter school launched its first academic year in July 2018 and enrolls Indiana students in grades seven through 12, with each grade level capped at 160 students. The tuition-free school was the brainchild of Allan Sutherlin, who grew up on a farm and wanted to bring the world of agriculture to the attention of middle and high school students. The school’s focus is to prepare students for the many careers available in the agriculture industry both on and off the farm.

See More: 10 Off-the-Farm Ag Careers

Agriculture in Indiana is a big business, and the trend of young people staying in the agriculture field is slowly shrinking, especially in the young people taking over family farms,” Marsh says. “We wanted to have a small part in helping young students see the importance of agriculture and learn that it isn’t just about farming. There are so many career opportunities in agriculture, and our goal is to expose our students to those careers.”

Indiana Agricultural and Technology School

Photo Credit: Indiana Agricultural and Technology School

Students at the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School may or may not choose to become farmers, but many will seek careers in modern agriculture that involve fields such as biology, life sciences, environmental management, food and nutrition, human health, forestry and engineering. School activities focus on animal science, plants and soils, food sciences and natural resources. Technology also plays a big role at the school and intertwines with many of its programs, especially with the use of high-tech drones that tend to capture the interest of younger generations.

“Students will be able to take our drone curriculum, become certified through FAA after completing the exam and have opportunities to fly drones at our farm campus,” Marsh says.

Empowering Graduates to Become Leaders in Agriculture

As it grows, the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School will establish a network of corporate and farming partnerships across the state to give students internships and, eventually, jobs as well. Students will learn firsthand from experts in various fields of agriculture.

“We will be working with businesses and organizations that will provide opportunities for our students to intern in the area they want to pursue as a career,” Marsh says. “This will expose students to real-world applications that hopefully could lead to employment opportunities as they graduate from high school. Or they will take that experience onto their next academic venture at a two-year or four-year college or university.”

Indiana Agricultural and Technology School

Ezra Pohl makes a model of DNA with Nathan Schleter in a class at Indiana Agricultural and Technology School.
©Journal Communications/Nathan Lambrecht

The school’s enrollment numbers are intentionally kept small because administrators want to provide a more personalized experience than traditional online schools do.

“We’re also committed to holding our students accountable for their education,” Marsh says. “Every enrolled student will be assigned at least four teachers – one for each course taken.”

Founders hope the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School will empower skilled graduates to become leaders in the field of agriculture, impacting their communities and the state in a positive way. The school invites students both with and without agriculture backgrounds to enroll.

“Studies have shown the percentage of American farmers is dwindling more each year,” Marsh says. “This is key as to why agriculture education is so important for today’s youth. Students are provided with opportunities to understand that agriculture is not just farming. They gain knowledge and specific skills when it comes to agriculture, and they can apply what they learn in a real-world setting through internships or other avenues.”

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