2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Pa. — If asked to implement a new agricultural science curriculum and FFA chapter in western Pennsylvania’s Washington County, how many teachers would choose to do it at a small, private, Christian school where only one-third of the roster has ever heard of FFA or comes from an agriculture background? Not likely many. But that is exactly what teacher Jamie Finch has done with First Love Christian Academy (FLCA) in Washington, Pa.
“I was hired to teach science to grades 9 to 12,” Finch said, “and my degree and background is in agriculture, so we developed the curriculum with that in mind.”
She said that they have had some challenges to overcome because FLCA is not a rural school, but they are tailoring their program towards urban agriculture.
For example, Finch said that in their animal science class, they work primarily in the classroom with small animals like guinea pigs, turtles, fish and dogs to learn about body systems, animal husbandry and reproduction.
“We have hatched chicken eggs, and we are attempting to breed our guinea pigs for those sections,” she said.
Other classes have included vet science, horticulture and natural resources.
“We are learning about the Marcellus Shale industry and how it affects our area in our natural resources classes,” Finch said.
The class discusses facts about the industry, employment opportunities, and has had speakers from different companies come in to do presentations.
All classes at FLCA are on a block schedule, which suits Finch just fine.
“We have 90 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday, as well as every other Friday,” she said. “That gives us the opportunity to really get involved in our projects or to get outside to see science in action.”
The classes also talk about the environment, pollution, sustainable living and food preservation.
The students are planning to make cheese and yogurt in class and perhaps dehydrate, sun-dry or can some food as well, Finch said.
“In our horticulture classes, we are talking about landscaping, different occupations in this field, as well as growing plants using a climatorium — a type of mini-greenhouse,” Finch said.
“We recently won a $10,000 grant from PNC Bank to purchase a greenhouse and we plan to set it up in the back parking lot this spring. We will then be able to grow other plants, like mums, poinsettias, and Easter flowers. That will that allow the students to take a hands-on approach to growing things,” she added.
The additional opportunity for students to get involved in FFA seemed like a natural extension of the ag science curriculum to Finch.
“FFA is not just about farming,” Finch said. “It is about developing personal growth, leadership, career success, social interaction (and) network building. There are a lot of elements involved.”
The FLCA already required students to take leadership classes, in which subjects like time and stress management, note- and test-taking skills, and methods of study are taught, so Finch decided to incorporate FFA elements into those courses.
“Our students take what they learn in leadership classes and apply it to career development opportunities through FFA,” Finch said. “It has been awesome to see these kids compete and place well in competitions like the recitation of the FFA creed and the mock job interviews.”
The FLCA FFA chapter received its official charter at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January this year.
“Four students received their official jackets at Farm Show as well,” Finch said. “Three of those jackets were sponsored by the Washington County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which was based on an application and essay that they had to fill out, again competing against other area FFA students.”
“The program has really taken off,” Finch said, “even though I feel like this generation doesn’t know as much about agriculture in general as generations past have.”
She said one of the biggest challenges has been explaining agriculture to the students with no ag background.
“A few students have remarked to me that they had no idea what all went in to getting food on their plates, for example,” the teacher said.
“That is what I am hoping to change. I want to make sure that these kids learn about agriculture’s contribution to society, as well as what they can contribute to agriculture. I want them to know that even in an urban setting, they can help to provide for themselves. I hope they understand that even on an acre, or in their backyard, they can do something green.’ ”