Inquiry Learning

  • The following are excerpts from my masters paper, written in 2008.  You can scroll down the page to other files I've chosen to share.  I've also posted the entire masters paper and project (with the horticulture skeleton curriculum on the NAAE Communities of Practice website). 


        While in college, professors emphasized that agriculture education was different from many other teaching disciplines because agriculture education is such a hands-on subject.  However, agriculture education (ag ed) majors and younger teachers instead utilize the “traditional classroom” (lecture, notes, worksheet, quiz) modeled by many college professors.  During informal conversations with peers, the general feeling is in the last two decades there has been a shift away from preparing ag ed majors to design meaningful hands-on lessons and activities.  

        For the past six years, my curriculum has been in a constant state of revision to improve students’ experiences with agriculture for this reason.  The curriculum I utilized my first two years of teaching barely resembles the curriculum that I use today; the main difference is the deletion of notes/lecture/quiz activities and the insertion of demonstrations, hands-on activities, laboratory investigations and many more meaningful activities where students seem to enjoy learning as well as improve their comprehension.  

        The agriculture education position at Sioux Central has expanded from a three-eighths contract to a current level of three-quarters contract (with an additional course not included in the formal contract and a 35-day extended contract).  The original enrollment was 10 students in two courses when the program was created in 1999-2000; today there are over 80 high school students in this program with another 12-15 collegiate FFA members.  80 students make up about one-third of the high school student body at Sioux Central.  The program offers dual-credit courses through Iowa Central Community College; four semester courses until 2008 (animal science, agronomy, ag firms & marketing, and natural resources) when another two semester courses were approved (horticulture and farm business management).  One other semester course is offered to juniors and seniors (ag mechanics) in addition to the traditional Ag Ed I and Ag Ed II courses.  Most classes are offered every year, but the original four dual-credit courses are offered every other year to maximize efficiency in regards to class sizes.  In the last four years, class sizes ranged from 16-28 students for Ag Ed I & II; ag mechanics is limited to 8 students; all other classes regularly have between 12-20 students.

        My chosen Creative Component project is to re-write the college-level curriculum for the horticulture class into meaningful units and activities that will assist students in comprehension as well as improve their interest in the horticulture industry.  Because this is an ICCC course I have a syllabus to follow; however, I have some leeway in how the material is presented.  The students in this course at Sioux Central are high school juniors and seniors, most of whom have completed Ag Ed I and II as freshmen and sophomores.  Students taking this course at ICCC may have little or no background in agriculture but they have already completed high school.  Therefore, some of the science principles covered in the course will be a quick review rather than a focus for Sioux Central students (such as photosynthesis, plant cells, soils, etc) while other principles may take more time to grasp.  Additionally, the ICCC course is taught during a 16-week period; my semester is roughly 18 weeks.  Therefore, I feel comfortable adding two additional units for a total of 14 units.  Each unit will last about one week, but many activities/projects will extend over multiple weeks; a few units will also take more than one week to complete.  

        I have worked through two books that focus on inquiry-learning and problem-based learning approaches in order to design a more meaningful and challenging curriculum.  Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry (Wilhelm, 2007) and Problem-Based Learning for Math & Science (Ronis, 2008) have been good resources to improve science and reading integration.  The first is a text that our learning community at Sioux Central has spent considerable time with and the second was a book I purchased at the National Association of Career and Technical Educators (NACTE) conference a year ago.  

        Wilhelm is a former English/Literature instructor, so some of his ideas are directed to math, English, science, history, (etc.) teachers to deepen meaning in those core curriculum areas.  It is my firm belief that agriculture instructors, or career and technical educators in general already excel at finding purpose in the curriculum.  However, I like the idea of guiding questions to get student interest.  

        Ronis, a professor of curriculum and instruction, focuses on integrating science, technology and math into all curriculums.  I like her ideas about moving from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom.  I hope that in the future, my classroom resembles a student-centered classroom.  She breaks problem-based learning into four categories: teacher-directed (most like the traditional classroom), real-life-referenced (a classroom problem suggested by a real-life situation), simulation of a real problem (students actively creating), and student-community problems (students actually gather enough real-life information to make a real-life decision). 

    Steps in Developing This Project

    “1. Identify an essential question and associated enduring understandings.  This identifies and focuses attention on your framing purpose and your major concepts and strategies.”  (Wilhelm)

    “2. Identify a final project.  Successful completion should demonstrate student ownership and use of these concepts and strategies.”  (Wilhelm)

    “3. Create a backwards plan.  This plan should map out classroom activities, conversations, questioning schemes, and student-generated questions that help students develop and use both conceptual and procedural understanding necessary to conducting the inquiry.”  (Wilhelm)

        It was important as I develop curriculum that I incorporate concepts from the Iowa FFA Career Development Events.  State FFA Advisor Dale Gruis describes CDEs as a “carrot” to chase after; students will prepare for the competitive event while gaining valuable skills and knowledge that may benfit them in a career down the road.  Some of the real-world activities (problem-solving skills, etc) for the CDEs fall right into the curriculum as I’ve organized it, so there are a few units that have worksheets and activities that are copied directly from old exams, practicums and activites from these CDEs.  Not only will these activities assist my students in preparing for the CDEs but they will also provide a taste of how industry utilizes concepts and knowledge we are discussing in class.


    Ronis, Diane.  Problem-Based Learning for Math & Science (2E).  Corwin Press; Thousand Oaks, California.  2008.
    Wilhelm, Jeffrey.  Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry.  Scholastic; Broadway, New York.  2007.

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