Students at Wasatch High School are learning agriculture with a hands-on outdoor classroom program that just wrapped up its first full year. Some of them are using it to earn scholarships, too.
As part of agricultural science courses at Wasatch High School, classes are being held outside in farming facilities multiple times a week.
Behind the west campus building is animal housing. It’s in a spacious structure full of stalls, and teachers who hold classes there call it a “lab.” Surrounding the lab are a greenhouse, a nursery with hundreds of native plants, a fruit orchard and a game bird flight pen.
Matthew Zierenberg, an FFA advisor and agriculture teacher, says the animals and plants growing there bring the curriculum to life.
“When I see the kids get excited about something in the class,” he says, “I know that’s the avenue I want to take the program. Because if they’re excited there, when we’re just talking about it, when we get into it, it’ll last.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, is make school applicable, make it fun, and then give them skills that will last their whole lives.”
The outdoor classroom is part of the IDEAL program, which stands for Innovate Discovery-based Educational and Agricultural Leadership. Coming off its first year, it stems from the school’s CAPS department, or Center for Advanced Professional Studies.
Liz Sweat is a rising senior, as well as director of sales and marketing for the IDEAL program. She applied for her leadership position after starting out working in the nursery.
“It teaches a good work ethic, it helps to learn the business,” Liz says. “Ag is kind of a dying industry in the States right now, and I think it’s a really important pursuit, and I think it’s really helpful. A lot of kids who are really interested in ag don’t have the land or resources or whatever to really get involved, and this gives them that place to get involved.”
For example, students who don’t have land can raise their own animals in the lab. Many raise them there to sell at the county fair.
Emili Sweat, Liz’s cousin, is a current teacher and FFA advisor, and former student at Wasatch High School.
She says, “It just really benefits a lot of those kids for whom school isn’t their strong suit, school isn’t what they live for. They’re able to still learn, and they’re able to find joy in learning through agriculture and in a different way than is typical in traditional teaching.”
A new IDEAL-sponsored course this coming year will be Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resource Conservation, which will be taught mostly in an outdoor garden and pavilion.
There’s more to the program than the hands-on classes, though.
Students in leadership positions are responsible for production of crops, trees, gamebirds and livestock. They sell these products to local businesses. The businesses return the profits to a scholarship fund for the student leaders to use after they graduate toward training or school tuition.
Partners include Back 40 Ranch House Grill, the Spring Creek Conservation Area and the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Zierenberg, or “Mr. Z,” says the businesses that partner with IDEAL get “the freshest local produce and local meat that they possibly can.” And people who buy plants for their homes in town can be confident in their ability to thrive in their native soil.
He also says the program is helping preserve a farming culture rooted in the county for generations.
“One of the things we see, is we’re losing our farmland,” he says. “It’s filling in with houses and apartments, and the kids are still hungry for agriculture, but the opportunities aren’t there. Our agriculture in the valley is moving toward hobby farms, and that’s what these kids are learning how to do, so they can carry that on for their whole lives.”
Last spring, nonprofit Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife donated $10,000 to the outdoor classroom.
To learn more about the IDEAL program, or to check availability of native plants for sale, visit ideal-farms.org.