Traditionally, students engaged in Supervised Agricultural Experiences, or SAEs, obtained valuable skills through working on farms in crop production and through raising and showing animals. Many individuals still believe one of the only ways FFA members learn by doing is through these two paths. However, while entrepreneurship still reigns as the top SAE participated in overall, research experiences are quickly gaining ground.
The primary research experience is conducted through Agriscience Fairs. A few years ago here in Texas, Agriscience Fair contests only offered a small number of competitors. However, just as the National FFA Organization adopted an acronym and creed that includes all ventures related to agriculture, Agriscience Fair research opportunities quickly presented students who would otherwise shy away from animals and farm life with a viable way to learn skills needed not only in careers involving agriculture, but life in general.
My lack of desire to raise an animal or to help out on a farm encouraged me to try Agriscience Fair projects. At the time, I was already involved in science events and I was looking forward to a future career as a scientist. Thus, research appealed to me and I found my SAE calling.
Agriscience Fair competitions consist of two parts. The first part contains the majority of the work. Students choose a situation and form a hypothesis, or question, that the experiment and research are to answer. Once the students collect enough background information on the situation they begin their experiments. Following the conclusion of their experiments students record and analyze the resulting data. After yet more research, students are then required to write a research paper.
This research paper is then submitted for judging before the actual competitions begin. Students are judged on the quality of their paper, how well they followed the scientific method, and how they interpreted and extrapolated the results of their data. While the paper is being judged, students prepare their display board for the second part of their Agriscience Fair competition.
The second part consists of the all-important interview. Just as any professional would present his or her findings to their peers, students are required to present the findings of their projects to a panel of two to five judges, depending on the contest. Contestants are allowed up to fifteen minutes to present their projects to the judges and the judges are encouraged to ask questions.
Agriscience Fair competitions have five categories at the state and national levels, in addition to student divisions. The categories consist of Biochemistry/Microbiology/Food Science, Botany, Engineering, Environmental Sciences, and Zoology. Students are classified into the following divisions based on their grade levels: Division I or Division II if presenting individually and Division III and Division IV if presenting as a team of two students.
I competed as a Division II student at four different locations throughout my Agriscience Fair career. Starting with my first research project titled “Magnetism Pulls: The North Against the South”, which questioned whether or not the north and south poles of magnets had any effect on bean plants compared to a control group, I competed at the San Antonio Livestock Exhibition, or SALE, Agriscience Fair. I later continued on to the Texas FFA Convention and the Dallas State Fair.
In my second year of competing I researched my project titled “The Effects of H1N1 on Population Decisions (Habits)”. With this project I placed Reserve Champion at the SALE Agriscience Fair and won a $10,000 scholarship. At the Texas FFA Convention I qualified as first in my category and won a $1,000 scholarship and the chance to attend the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. Once there, my project helped me earn a silver pin at the National level.
It's safe to say that there are many rewards students can take advantage of while participating in the research SAE. During my last competitions, I noticed just how much Agriscience Fairs have grown over the past several years. Through this non-traditional SAE, I was able to learn by doing just as other students learn by doing in their respective Supervised Agricultural Experiences. Research experiences provide a new route on par with the more traditional SAEs that all interested FFA members can sample.