2019 STEM Innovation Award: Paoli Junior-Senior High School Agriculture Department

This spring, ROI proudly recognized organizations for innovations to improve education, economic development, and quality of place in the Indiana Uplands. This is the second in a series of six stories that feature winners of the  Regional Innovation Awards. Their work showcases conceptual shifts, creative strategies, and commitment to action that we hope will inspire others in the region.

When you meet Paoli Junior-Senior High School agriculture students—confident, fresh-faced young people in royal blue jackets embroidered with their names on the front and the FFA emblem on the back–you might assume they live on farms, but most don’t. These students are part of a new generation engaging with agriculture science, using 21st century skills and making real-world connections. With this approach, and under the leadership of teachers Cory Scott and Kyle Woolston, Paoli’s Ag Department has surged from 20 to 180 students per year.

Through Paoli’s innovative farm-to-table program, students grow fresh hydroponic produce and raise hogs, both of which end up in the school lunch line in the form of salads, sausage, barbeque, and more. “I think the kids that we’re getting back year after year, looking more seriously at ag careers, [can be] attributed to the fact that they’re actually getting to do ag,” Scott told ROI. “They’re out there getting their hands dirty, and they’re trying new things. They see the results of the work that they’re putting in. They get to eat some of the results. Kids today, they want to learn, they love to learn, but they want to see that it’s applicable. They want to see that this is going to benefit them in the future. I think that’s really what’s fueling the passion and the hard work that these kids are putting into this. They’re taking ownership.”

While earning high school credit through experiential learning and gaining essential employability skills, students are also lightening the burden of food costs to the school’s annual budget. They’re learning about genetics, animal husbandry, and horticulture. They’re even learning how to use hog and cafeteria waste to create fertilizer, for use in the program or for sale. 

The program all started with a gilt named Ms. Boots. (For city slickers, a gilt is a sow pregnant with her first piglets.)

“The increased focus on testing and technology usage in schools made it hard to get students to understand the applicable skills used in agriculture,” Scott told Ag Daily, who featured Paoli’s program in a 2018 article. “I decided to bring a gilt onto campus to show them how agriculture and technology could be used together.” Ms. Boots was a hit right away. “The entire school fell in love with her and wanted to be able to see her give birth, so the students came up with the idea to attach a webcam to our website so that anyone could check on her, and the babies, at any time,” Scott said. 

From there the program has blossomed, and students are eager to share their experience. “Not many of us live on farms,” student Elizabeth explained. “I showed pigs [at 4H], but before FFA, I never saw how they were born and all that goes into that. This year I really got to see what it’s like for a pig to give birth.” 

One of the most striking things about talking to Paoli’s ag students is how well they work together and how confidently they talk with adults. They’ve developed close, lasting friendships, sometimes with students they had never spoken to before. As Tara told ROI, the program “changed our mindset on a lot of different things. It helped us develop our character, and helped us develop more leadership skills and get along more.” Bailey agreed: “It doesn’t just affect our school lives. It affects us out of school.”

In the early months of each year, when the hog program is most active, Scott and his students give tours every week. “You have to have a lot of confidence to be able to go up and talk in front of the amount of people we’ve talked in front of,” Harley said cheerfully. And as Nick told ROI, that will help the students “in any career, anything we want to do.”

Even students who aren’t participating in the program are learning something about ag. “They know where their food comes from now,” Elizabeth said proudly. When a hog leaves the school and returns as lunch a few weeks later, the students joke a little, sure, but now “they know it’s part of life, and they know it’s not coming from a processed plant somewhere. They know it’s from here.” Vegetarians need not fear: Paoli’s horticulture program has them covered at the salad bar.

At Paoli Junior-Senior High School, agriculture science is about more than growing food: it’s about growing young people into leaders.

Photos courtesy of Paoli FFA. See more photos on the Paoli FFA Facebook page.

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