Rural engagement initiative brings CAM’s Classroom to Mesa County
Popping up at stock shows and county fairs, CAM’s Classroom offers a new perspective on the world of agriculture in Colorado. Pass between the pair of towering 8-foot-tall pencils and you’ll come face-to-face with inspired young agriculturalists ready to deliver engaging and interactive lessons.
CSU education experts with CAM’s Ag Academy help undergraduate and graduate students, as well as young FFA and 4-H members, explore the role of being a teacher by connecting them with curious visitors of all ages in order to share their passions and insights with the public. These young educators dive into everything from local livestock practices to what goes into growing every ingredient in a peach pie – from fruit to grain – and how it ultimately becomes a slice of pure joy.
“When we go out into these communities we have an extremely high expectation for what that engagement looks like in the classroom,” said Jenny Bennett, an agricultural literacy instructor and outreach coordinator with CAM’s Ag Academy.
“To be able to connect with everyone is really, really important, and we’re committed to figuring out how to best do that.”
– Jenny Bennett, instructor and outreach coordinator, CAM’s Ag Academy
“We talk about the science and art of teaching. To be a good teacher is to be a good communicator,” said Bennett.
“It takes practice and patience and talking and reflection, but then all of a sudden these students are teaching. They’re talking to people across the ages with confidence. It becomes more than kids’ activities, we see adults, grandparents, everyone is welcome.”
Helping people see the big picture
But why is this agricultural outreach important?
“The easy answer is we need to close the producer-consumer gap,” said Bennett. “But I challenge people to see the bigger picture.”
“Agricultural literacy is about the pursuit of literacy, of continually learning and questioning things. It’s not finite.”
– Jenny Bennett
“Agriculture is part of our everyday lives and you cannot go about doing anything without it.” Bennett said. “Our goal is to focus on giving people a positive interaction and encourage an appreciation for the scale and impact of our state’s agricultural system.”
This is no small task. Colorado’s agriculture system is complex, with nearly 40,000 farms operating across 32 million acres, which is just shy of half the land in the state. More than 195,000 Coloradans are employed in jobs related to agribusiness and the industry contributes a whopping $47 billion to the state’s economy every year.
So, how do you start to explain things when you’re talking to a five-year-old?
“A lot of times we underestimate people, especially kids,” Bennett said. “When we oversimplify agriculture it ends up doing a disservice to potential future agriculturalists.”
For the young visitors who have committed themselves to learning as much as they can from the Ag Ambassadors in CAM’s Classroom, the program offers them a way to become Junior Ag Ambassadors. After completing a set number of activities, they’re quizzed on their knowledge and pledge to be lifelong learners in agriculture, proudly holding up their Ram horns as they’re awarded their badge.
At the Mesa County Fair alone, over 250 visitors became Junior Ag Ambassadors.
“We piece things out and get the ball rolling, like just getting them to understand the amount of water it takes to grow the flour for their peach pie. That’s a good start.”
However, this challenge doesn’t mean lessons are anything but fun. From scavenger hunts to bingo and even foot races, the educational experience is engaging and tailored to participants’ knowledge levels.
“In some ways, I wish we were more tech savvy, but there’s something magic about taking a popsicle stick and turning it into something really cool.”
– Jenny Bennett
Making it out to Mesa County
Over the summer, support from CSU’s Office of Engagement and Extension’s Expanded Rural Engagement initiative made it possible for the team at CAM’s Ag Academy to offer free, hands-on educational programming at the Mesa County fair.
To provide educational experiences to over 630 visitors, five CSU agricultural sciences students, two CSU faculty members and 13 members of the Fruita and Plateau Valley FFA Chapters spent a combined 400 hours preparing for the fair, researching the community and it’s agriculture practices, developing customized lessons and more.
More than 45,000 people have taken part in programming from CAM’s Ag Academy since Jan. 2020
More than 100 CSU College of Agricultural Sciences students have served as CAM’s Educators
More than 60 FFA and 4-H members have served as CAM’s Educators
“We’re not fancy or high tech by any means, my Honda Pilot is usually the main form of transportation,” said Bennett. “Without the rural engagement funding, we would not have been able to go out to Mesa County.”
But what CAM’s Ag Academy lacks in slick tech, they more than make up for with their knowledge, compassion, and perseverance.
“We probably made 500 laminations and folks had burns on their fingers from using hot glue guns to create materials,” said Bennet. “In some ways, I wish we were more tech savvy, but there’s something magic about taking a popsicle stick and turning it into something really cool. Kids don’t care, they just want to have a good time and make a connection with you.”
When the team found out that a group of special needs students and adults would be attending the fair, one of their students developed an entire sensory-focused lesson with dried honeycomb, wood, leather, corn, wheat and hay in order to introduce the unique learners to the concept of commodities.
“To be able to connect with everyone is really, really important, and we’re committed to figuring out how to best do that,” Bennett said. “Not everyone is fortunate enough to be born on a farm or intimately involved in production, processing, distribution or selling ag products. But, what we hope we can do is despite where you might fall in that agricultural system, is helping people develop an appreciation for the system itself.”
“Our mission when we go into these spaces is community engagement. We want to elevate what the community has to offer and as experts in education, bring what we know to the public,” Bennet said. “Ag literacy is about the pursuit of literacy, of continually learning and questioning things. It’s not finite, it’s not reaching the top of the pyramid.”
In that way, we can all learn from the lessons taught in CAM’s Classroom. It’s impossible to know everything, but each step we make toward educating ourselves on the world around us opens up new ways to understand our role in Colorado agriculture.
Visit CAM’s Ag Academy at CSU Spur
You can visit CAM’s Ag Academy and other educational programs hosted at CSU Spur’s Morgridge Learning Lab, a 1500-square-foot teaching lab space in the Terra building. The lab is designed to host a variety of hands-on, problem-based learning activities. There, CAM’s Ag Academy immerses middle-school and high-school students in complex problems and potential solutions in food and agriculture.
CAM’s Ag Academy aims to positively contribute to:
- Student affinity towards agriculture and agriculture occupational objectives
- Student increase in agricultural literacy
- Better and more practiced future agriculture teachers
- Improved connections to industry, agricultural education and the College of Agricultural Sciences
- Improved leadership in and around agriculture