Energizing high school science education through a focus on food systems
Thematic approaches to K-12 education can be an effective means of bolstering curricular cohesiveness and providing students with strong career development opportunities. The positive impact of thematic education can be seen in the long waiting lists and remarkably high rates of high school graduation and college admission associated with several agriculturally-focused schools across the country. Through areas of emphasis such as food systems, agriculture, and urban ecology, thematic schools are able not only to provide energized and cohesive programming, but also to train future scientist to tackle challenges of food system sustainability, and to expose students to a wealth of diverse career paths. Such schools remain isolated examples, however, not widely replicated despite their clear success. Why is this? What obstacles exist to forming a replicable model that would allow schools to more easily specialize in agricultural and urban ecology and food systems? To address this question, we have partnered with Milwaukee’s Vincent High School (VHS), which is in its first years of transition to a focus on agricultural science and urban food systems.
VHS serves a more than 95% minority student population, with over 85% of students coming from low income or homeless families. With many of its students living under difficult circumstances, dealing with truancy and providing successful career and college counseling are significant challenges for the school. At the same time though, teachers have begun to organize science and engineering courses around agricultural themes, and to begin courses in agricultural education – with positive results. In the fall of 2013, we placed one of our University of Wisconsin team members at VHS to work as an Agricultural Education Coordinator, supporting teachers in curriculum development, and guiding long-term program expansion. Through this association, we are working both to ensure success of the VHS transition, and to compare and contrast the process with those that have taken place at currently existing agriculturally, urban ecology, or food system focused schools, with the goal of synthesizing replicable model(s) for broader use. Crucial elements that have come to light in this first year are reviewed, including the critical role of industry partnerships for providing career perspectives and development opportunities, and challenges and opportunities in bridging curriculum in urban and rural food systems and agroecosystem science.