by Randy Weckman
If you think that lifelong learning and society-ready graduates are just empty phrases coined for a report on teaching, to be used as an alibi for doing business as usual, think again. Both concepts are living and breathing and are driving the overhaul of the College's undergraduate curriculum.
If the concepts of lifelong learning and society-ready graduates are a bit esoteric for you, think about your high school history course. Chances are you learned a few critical facts— America was “discovered” by Columbus in 1492, for example—some of which stayed with you. You probably don't remember much about the social milieu that motivated Columbus to set sail west.
“Lifelong learning acknowledges that new facts and interpretations emerge at an increasing rate. And society-ready graduates must have the ability to move in this new, fast-paced world of fresh facts, new figures, nascent concepts and interpretations, and integrate them quickly,” said Joe Davis, associate dean for instruction in the College of Agriculture.
Lifelong learning and society-ready graduates are joined at the hip with other terms used to describe today's ag classroom. Concepts such as active learning, collaborative learning, problem-based learning, learning teams, and learner focused are all part of the new lexicon describing the College's undergraduate program.
“Our goal is to graduate students who can quickly assume their role in the professional world and shape the future,” Davis said.
The changes in the ag classrooms are not just taking place on the part of the students; professors' roles are changing, too.
“The image of the college professor lecturing nonstop for 50 minutes from yellowed lecture notes to passive students has been shattered. And the invisible wall that effectively separated the intellectual capacities of the professors and the students has been removed. Professors are not just lecturers anymore; they are coaches and cheerleaders for the students in learning how to learn,” Davis said.
“In the next century, an educated person must function effectively in a global environment. Providing students the opportunity to gain the skills necessary to do that is at the heart of our undergraduate curriculum. Teaching ‘just the facts' won't do anymore. We must equip our students with the ability to gather and analyze data, challenge conventional thought, and fulfill their individual potential,” said C. Oran Little, dean of the UK College of Agriculture.
Giving students the opportunity to gain the skills necessary to function effectively in a global environment is at the heart of our undergraduate curriculum.
Students start their quest to become lifelong learners and society-ready graduates their first year at UK . GEN 100: Issues in Agriculture, required of all College of Agriculture majors, begins with each student preparing and presenting an analysis of population and food/resource issues confronting a developing nation, according to Lori Garkovich, rural sociology professor. She is one of six faculty members who teach the course.
To do this first assignment, Garkovich said, students research a foreign culture, learn about social and economic development, and communicate their findings to their peers.
“Later in the course, students investigate the industrialization of agriculture and biotechnology and consider the global impacts of those processes,” she said.
Students report to Garkovich that GEN 100 has “opened their eyes to the broader social, economic, political, and cultural questions” related to modern agriculture.
For Garkovich, the GEN 100 class involves a great deal more than updating lecture notes from year to year. It has meant a new way of teaching.
“It is an exciting challenge to step out of the traditional ‘top down' approach of much classroom teaching and sit on the sidelines and watch the students teach each other. This is about shifting the power over learning from me to the students, and expecting them to assume a greater responsibility for their own knowledge,” Garkovich said.
Second-year students enroll in GEN 200, which continues the process of instilling independence in the learning process, while expanding the students' appreciation of agriculture as a global concept, being compelled and constrained by a variety of social, economic, and political factors.
According to Michael Walker, a public service and leadership major who plans to attend law school after graduation, the GEN 100 and 200 classes, “not only give a good theoretical, historical, and philosophical perspective on agricultural development, they also provide good grounding in public speaking, critical thinking, and electronic information networks.”
Internships. They are a vital part of the lifelong learning adventure, according to Davis . And while not all academic programs require internships, many do and all students are encouraged to fulfill an internship.
Ashley Moore, the college's career development specialist, said that internships are becoming more and more popular for students.
“Internships have become a critical piece in career planning. Students realize the importance of relevant experience on their resumes and see internships as the perfect way to gain it. More and more companies are implementing internship programs and using them as a way to recruit top students,” she said.
Last year, 72 ag students received academic credit for internships. Many, many more completed internships, but did not receive academic credit.
“Internships fit into the concepts of lifelong learning and society-ready graduates. Internships give students a sneak preview of what they need to learn to be successful in their field; then they can hone particular career skills in the remainder of their academic careers,” Davis said.
James Mudd, an animal sciences major, echoed Davis ' enthusiasm for internships.
“In my quest to be society-ready, I applied for my first internship when I was a freshman. I interviewed for the position of quality control inspector with IBP in Columbus Junction, Iowa , and was hired for the summer. Following my sophomore year, I was hired by IBP in the procurement department, also as a summer intern. The hands-on learning I obtained through my internships not only helped me in the classroom but it also helped me learn how the ‘real world' operates,” Mudd said.
Walker 's internship with the national affairs division of Kentucky Farm Bureau constituted a life-changing experience.
“Every day at Farm Bureau meant a new experience and a new issue to learn about. My brain never rested, sometimes even I never rested, but I loved it more than anything. Not only did I feel like I was appreciated, and challenged, I felt like a contributor and even a colleague. Now I think that as I move further in life, I hope I can work in agricultural policy or biotechnology policy. I guarantee that none of this would have happened without the College,” Walker said.
Capstone courses round off agricultural students' college careers. These seminars allow seniors to work on a “real life” problem with peers, their instructor, and experts outside the University during the semester-long course.
“Capstone courses are designed to integrate all the knowledge and skills the students have learned during their first three years of college. They challenge the students to apply the skills they learned to a complex, multifaceted problem within their major,” Davis said.
We must equip our students with the ability to gather and analyze data, challenge conventional thought, and fulfill their individual potential.
Mary Arthur, who teaches the natural resources and conservation management capstone course, described her course as emphasizing team work and problem-solving skills to integrate a broad spectrum of knowledge in both natural and social sciences.
“The senior capstone course in natural resources and conservation management immerses students in a complex natural resources issue that requires them to develop creative problem-solving skills, identify and research various stakeholders' positions and interests, and then formulate a report of findings that builds consensus and resolution of the issue,” she said.
Arthur selects a different natural resources issue each year she teaches the capstone course. One year, the class addressed the issue of the reintroduction of elk to Eastern Kentucky . Another year, the students examined the revision of the Daniel Boone National Forest Land and Management Plan.
“This course is very much a process, rather than a neat unfolding of information passed on from instructor to student. The students and I experience the course as being a tremendous amount of work, not only because there is so much to learn and do, but also because the process itself can be exhausting,” Arthur said.
Regardless of the students' feelings about quantity of work involved, they always give it high evaluations for being useful to their future roles as natural resource professionals.
Stephanie Barnwell, a May '99 graduate in natural resources and conservation management, said that the capstone course is an excellent way to end one's college career. “It allows the students to work independently and actually get a feel for what environmental consulting may be like. It causes students to put aside their own biases and focus instead on the interests of the public.” Barnwell now is an environmental inspector with the Commonwealth of Kentucky in London .
According to Heather Vidourek, Class of '96 and personnel manager for Farm Credit Services, the concept of society-ready graduates is important in today's workplace. “We strive to hire future leaders—the best and the brightest college graduates. We need self-motivated individuals who thrive on challenges and effectively communicate with their internal and external customers. Graduates who can adapt what they've learned in the classroom and in their extra-curricular activities to meet the ever-changing challenges of the business world will have the tools necessary to plant the seed for their success.”
“In the College of Agriculture , we recognize that yesterday's ways of preparing students aren't good enough for tomorrow's needs. Our faculty's focus on lifelong learning as a means of preparing society-ready graduates will help our students lead us in the next century,” Little said.