Western Innovator: Students Get Real-World Lessons

| Dianna Toyer

In their FFA and agriscience classes, students at Mackay High School in central Idaho are enrolling in college classes and experiencing unforgettable lessons through an innovative and flexible curriculum.

Under the supervision of Trent Van Leuven, 34, agriscience instructor and FFA adviser, students enroll in college classes, become certified to do artificial insemination in cattle through the Idaho Department of Agriculture, and help biologists trap deer.

They also run the state’s only year-round high school warm and cold water aquaculture laboratory, where they raise tilapia, trout and sturgeon. Van Leuven plans to eventually build a new lab with $35,000 in grants and other funding already committed to the project.

“I’ve always considered the whole world as my classroom,” said Van Leuven, who began teaching in Mackay in 2014. “Some teachers have come to accept a traditional role of what the world thinks teaching has to be. I try to use all my resources and ingenuity to bring basic concepts home to students. If an opportunity arises, I take it — even if it means ranchers asking for help working cattle and calling me up at 6 a.m. that same morning.”

Several years ago, a teaching opportunity arose when a local rancher donated a two-headed stillborn calf to the ag program. Van Leuven presented a dissection and taught an embryology class with it.

This winter, his students helped Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists trap mule deer to study population trends.

His students also run a hydroponic greenhouse, have an annual plant sale, raise calves, plan an itinerary and raise money to attend the National FFA convention, and organize a blood drive.

“I really appreciate great administrators who help make these opportunities possible, especially our dual enrollment college classes,” he said.

He has received instructor endorsements, enabling him to provide students dual enrollment college options. Through the College of Southern Idaho, he teaches an animal science class and agriculture management, enabling students to earn inexpensive college credits while studying in their Mackay classroom. He also teaches a range principles class through the University of Idaho.

Not all of Van Leuven’s lessons are limited to U.S. agriculture. When appropriate to a class, he shares his international teaching experiences.

Three years ago during the summer, he lived in Benin, a tiny country in West Africa known for cotton production. He developed a curriculum for school gardens through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program administered by Catholic Relief Services. The program promotes sustainable economic growth and food security. Another year, he has also learned tilapia-raising techniques in Brazil.

Van Leuven’s students also use an innovative award-winning teaching aid he built, a mobile cow skeleton. In 2012, the National Association of Agricultural Educators honored him with an Ideas Unlimited Award for using the skeleton.

“My lessons about things like primal carcass cuts, ruminant digestion, artificial insemination, and cattle body structure needed a hands-on aspect that would grab and hold students’ interest,” he said. “I couldn’t bring a cow into the classroom, so I did the next best thing.”

In 2016, his teaching philosophy and projects earned him a National Agriscience Teacher of the Year Award from the National Association of Agricultural Educators. Van Leuven was one of six winners nationwide and represented District 1, a region that encompasses nine western states.

“My peers who nominated me have taught me so much at various conferences and settings.”

A self-described lifelong learner, Van Leuven said he “tries to encourage my students to follow suit. I read once that 60 percent of college graduates never read another book after college. We should never stop learning.”

On a recent family vacation in San Diego, he met aquaculturists who helped him tap into a nationwide network of people who raise fish.

“We also went to a botanical garden to admire their succulents and tropical fruit section and explored ecosystems at a beach and zoo. There are always opportunities to learn whatever we do and wherever we go. Lifelong learning can help ag instructors — and they should seek out professional development that really would help them help students.”

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