Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Should agricultural courses at university be targeted at rural students only?

Deborah Pritchard
Lecturer Agronomy, Muresk Institute of Agriculture
Curtin University of Technology
and

Dr Nancy Longnecker
Education Program Leader, CLIMA
The University of Western Australia
Traditionally agriculture has been perceived as a career choice for students who are practically orientated but not necessarily strong academically. Secondary students have been under the impression 'that a career in agriculture means driving a tractor' for too long. This dilemma session will outline whether or not there is a need to attract high achieving students from metropolitan schools into agricultural courses at university. A report on the two year pilot study that eventuated will also be summarised.

This study is also unique in that it involves the collaboration of two universities quite distinct in their agricultural courses and will outline any problems and conflicts that arose. Actual examples from the five day agricultural camps will be presented and ideas for further development explored.


Introduction

Metropolitan students are typically under-represented in University agricultural courses in Western Australia with agricultural courses generally being confined to rural students (Postle, Clarke, Skuja, Bull, Batorowicz and McCann, 1995). How do you encourage high school students from the metropolitan area to choose a career in agriculture? Do high school students know enough about career choices to make a decision ? It is suggested not, as younger students who withdraw from university courses are likely to state that their reasons for withdrawal were to do with factors that bear some relationship to their degree of commitment to the course in question or discover after they have begun that the course does not suit them (Elliott, 1997). In addition, how do you attract high achieving academic students to courses in agriculture? How do you provide metropolitan students with better information about agricultural courses offered?

The University of Western Australia (UWA) and Curtin University of Technology (CUT) both offer courses in agriculture although they emphasise different aspects of agriculture. Typically UWA concentrates on agricultural science and economics (at the Faculty of Agriculture) whereas CUT emphasises agribusiness and management of agricultural industries (at the Muresk Institute of Agriculture) In this paper we present the collaborative efforts between these two universities with campuses 100 km apart which aimed at increasing the awareness of high achieving high school students about the diverse careers in agriculture.

How do you attract high achieving high school students to University agricultural courses?

The Faculty of Agriculture at UWA and Muresk Institute of Agriculture at CUT developed a week long scholarship camp during the July school holidays to provide information to metropolitan students about what careers are available in the agricultural industry. Year 10 students were targeted as they had yet to make decisions as to what subjects to study in years 11/12.

Letters were sent to principals, science masters and counselors in every metropolitan high school (54). They were asked to inform students of the camp and select the best student with some interest in Agriculture. The general term "Careers in Agriculture" was selected but brochures sent to schools included information on the range of career options - for example aquaculture, viticulture, soil science etc and the degrees offered at both campuses. Students were asked to provide their last year's academic record, a short reference from a teacher and to write a paragraph outlining what they thought they would gain from the camp.

Applications were received from 57 students in 1996 and 42 students in 1997. Students were selected on three criteria: adequate grades in english, maths and science for university entrance, preferably one student per school and a balance between boys and girls. Thirty students were selected to participate in each camp and represented both public and private schools. The response for the first camp was much higher and attracted more scholarly students in general. This was thought to be due to the application forms and fliers going out earlier in the first year as compared to the second year.

How do you ensure students are well supervised?

Two academic organisers and four agricultural students studying at university chosen as mentors, were with the students 24 hours/day to provide constant care. Students were divided into four buddy groups of eight, with a mentor. One male and one female mentor were selected from UWA and the other male and female mentor from CUT. The mentors were studying a range of agricultural careers which also included horticulture and viticulture. The mentors were an integral and important part of the camp with two of the mentors assisting with camps in both 1996 and 1997. The mentors were also responsible for organising fun activities for the students. In the 1997 cohort, 100% of the students responded 'yes' to the question, did they have 'fun' at the camp. This was an important objective of the camp.

Do metropolitan students have misconceptions about the careers available to agricultural graduates?

The objective of the camp was to increase awareness of metropolitan high school students about the opportunities open to those who do a degree in agriculture. The success of this approach is evidenced by some of the responses to the camp questionnaire. Students were asked to list careers available to people who have studied agriculture. Students listed as average of four careers in the pre camp questionnaire and nine at the end of the camp. Students were also asked how much they knew about agriculture both pre and post camp for which the results are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Students response to the question, ' I know a lot about agriculture'

% of students responding

strongly agree agreeneutraldisagreestrongly disagree

pre camp 03547180
post camp 15731200

It should be pointed out that some students who attended the camp may have been from a rural background but were boarding at a Perth school. Should the camp be confined only to metropolitan schools? Many students from rural areas may also benefit from attending the camp. Rural students may be equally unaware of the full range of careers available in the agricultural industries.

How do you expose students to the reality of a career in agriculture?

Students attending the camp were based in Perth at UWA for the first two and a half days then traveled to Northam (100km) to stay at the Muresk Institute of Agriculture, CUT, Northam campus. Students were returned to Perth to be collected by parents on the afternoon of day five. The camp was planned to coincide with the university holidays so university student accommodation would be available.

Students were introduced to each other, their mentors and camp organisers as the first activity and the week's program was outlined. Within each University, a range of activities were organised representing the disciplines taught such as tissue culture, pollen germination, yoghurt making, soil health, tree planting, sheep handling and market analysis. A number of university professors and academics attended the camp and brought with them a wealth of information and cultural variety. Guided tours were given for each of the campuses. Excursions included visits to Alcoa, the Sumich Group, Bank-West (Perth), Agriculture WA, a free range emu farm, mixed farming, alpacas and a visit to the Minister of Primary Industries (Monty House). Recreational activities included wall climbing, various games and agricultural quizzes.

Recent graduates presented seminars on life as a student at UWA or Muresk and career paths leading to their current positions. Recent graduates took great pride in their place of qualifications and needed to be monitored closely as they tended to be very biased, recommending their place of study strongly. Some discomfort/conflict arose between UWA/CUT during these sessions. A reunion dinner at the second camp in 1997 was attended by 12 students which was very worthwhile although more time should have been taken to welcome these students and make them feel special.

The students were impressed with the broad spectrum of careers available to people with backgrounds in agriculture and the contrast of BankWest to AgWA was useful in emphasising this diversity. Information about entry requirements for University admission and entry preparation (TEE) was also discussed. Students who applied for a place on the camp (and their teachers and parents) but missed out were invited to a tour of the Faculty of Agriculture (UWA) and afternoon tea and to the Muresk Open Day later in the year.

Anticipated outcomes

At the beginning of the camp, most students admitted that they did not know much about agriculture. Most of their information came from their teachers and over half did not attend career nights. Most of them could think of at least one career in agriculture but their range was limited, sometimes incorrect and indicated ignorance of the opportunities. Most said they were interested in pursuing one of these careers.

By the end of the camp survey, all students thought they knew much more about agriculture and related degree and career opportunities. There was some interest in new courses such as natural resource management, wool science, viticulture and aquaculture.

Students enjoyed the experience of both campuses. The two Universities have a different emphasis on agriculture (business vs science) and this was exploited by both universities. This could have been a problem with both universities potentially trying to win the students over but overall the liaison between both universities was extremely positive and helped to reduce the workload. All pre-camp meeting were scheduled at the UWA campus which resulted in more travel for the Muresk coordinators. However this was offset by the large administration role the Faculty of Agriculture undertook.

Some students have written letters of thanks to the organisers, attended careers functions and open days at both universities and brought their friends. Some of the campers have given talks about their experiences in school classes and written articles for their school newsletters. Past campers were very positive at the reunion function. This camp is an excellent way to promote agriculture within metropolitan high schools. All students were keen to have an address list of participants and many friendships seem to have developed.

The camps appear to be a success in terms of the immediate goals but the questions still remain. Will they study agriculture at university ? Will they enrol at UWA or CUT? Would they have come anyway? Unfortunately we will not know until enrolments in 1999. It is highly likely that the school camp will result in enrolment by students who may never have considered studying agriculture. The camp was an expensive exercise in terms of dollars and also staff time. The cost per student versus future returns need to be determined. The future holds the answer as to the success of this program.

Future directions

The camp should be continued to be run cooperatively until the year 2000 by which time the 1999 and 2000 enrolment data will provide as assessment of the situation. Appointment to the organising committee should include two academic coordinators from each university to spread the workload and to provide continuum from one year to the next. Appointment to the committee should be a two year commitment with the person playing a support role in their first year and having main responsibility for the camp in their second year. The camp takes much time to organise, plan and implement and the role is extra to the normal academic workload.

Planning should be carried out as early as possible in the calendar year which is critical for getting a larger pool of high quality applications, particularly in state schools. Letters should be addressed to teachers who have recommended applicants in 1996 and 1997. There is a need to strongly emphasise the need for high scholarly achievements. Some of the teachers seemed to think of the camp as a remedial exercise (i.e. tractor driving 101) indicating that teacher education is also important. Rural schools should be included in 1998 as rural students may have misconceptions regarding the range of careers in agriculture, evident by the work of Elliott (1997) and the camp surveys. Minor improvements such as meals, accommodation and various activities have not been discussed in the scope of this paper.

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge the initial reports by Dr Julie Plummer (UWA) and Dr James Weatherford (CUT). The success of the camp would not have been possible without the input of Dr Steven Schilezzi (UWA) and Alison Connell (UWA).

References

Elliott, J. (1997). Early student withdrawal: The reasons students give for leaving the university. In Pospisil, R., and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning through Teaching. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum. Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/ellio78.html

Postle, G. D., Clarke, J. R., Skuja, E., Bull, D. D., Batorowicz, K. and McCann, H. A. (1995). Towards Excellence in Diversity: Educational equity in the Australian higher education sector in 1995: status, trends and future directions. Queensland: USQ Press.

Please cite as: Pritchard, D. and Longnecker, N. (1998). Should agricultural courses at university be targeted at rural students only? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 274-277. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/pritchard.html


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