Agriscience goes urban: Demand high statewide

By for CAES News
By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Agriscience education, with its obvious agriculture connection, has traditionally been most popular in schools in rural Georgia. So when Atlanta middle and high schools got interested, Dennis Duncan took note.

“Looking at the number of urban programs in Atlanta, we’re meeting a niche,” said Duncan, an assistant professor of agricultural education at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Because of metro Atlanta’s booming population and housing industry, the need for landscape and nursery workers has intensified.

“By offering horticulture curriculum, especially in urban areas, we’re helping prepare students for the green industry, which is a huge industry around the country,” he said. “There is a big demand for students with training in that area.”

The state’s ornamental horticulture industry had a farm gate value of $699.4 million in 2005, according to the Georgia Farm Gate Value Report. At the top of the moneymakers on that list, which includes field and container nurseries and turfgrass producers, greenhouses pulled 35.2 percent of the total with $245.9 million.

The top two counties in Georgia’s greenhouse industry are Fulton and Cherokee; hence the high demand for metro-area high school graduates who had agriscience classes as part of their curriculum.

Agriscience education is not just focused on horticulture. The high school certificate program, which falls under the career and technical education umbrella in Georgia, has classes ranging from animal science to forestry and natural resources to landscaping floriculture.

Classes are also offered in middle schools statewide.

“Conceivably, there could be 50-plus courses in agriscience,” Duncan said. Class selection typically depends on the teacher. And students who enter the program leave it with a well-rounded science education.

Duncan’s recent study for the CAES department of agricultural leadership, education and communication shows that “the mean score for agriscience students on the science portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test was 511.24, about three points lower than college prep students,” he said.

Nearly 78 percent of the agriscience students passed the test on their first attempt, in comparison to 68 percent for the state average and only 38 percent for technology-and-career prep students.

The numbers Duncan obtained from the Georgia Department of Education in 2005 and early 2006 included students who were enrolled in both agriscience and college preparatory curricula. Students in the study had a high level of Supervised Agricultural Experience program engagement and a moderate level of FFA participation.

The program relies heavily on science, but that fact isn’t always obvious, he said. “Science is woven into each course, whether they’re aware of it or not.

“I think it’s excellent that students in these courses are able to apply the content, whether it’s in a lab or they take it home,” Duncan said. “It’s a great opportunity that they may not get in other courses in high school.”

Agriscience programs also open doors, for some students, to higher education, even if they don’t get a bachelor’s degree.

“So many students are pushed to get a four-year degree,” Duncan said. Yet, “there are so many opportunities for students with technical degrees.” The Georgia green industry’s demand for workers far outpaces the state’s number of qualified people to fill them.

The opportunities don’t end there.

In front of agriscience students stand their teachers. Even as the green industry searches for workers, schools are demanding more agriscience teachers, needing more than the almost 400 already in classrooms across the state.

“There aren’t enough teachers to fill the need,” Duncan said. “There are more jobs than people, and the salaries are very good.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.