ALEC 380 Students Learn & Explore During 10-Day Trip


By: Mollie Lastovica

A group of forty-nine faculty, graduate and undergraduate students returned from a 10-day high impact learning field trip on Tues., Oct. 30, experiencing lessons of diversity, community, culture, agriculture, service and systems thinking along the way.

As part of their class, ALEC 380, the group traveled to six different states, touring staple organizations and industries of the respective location at each stop. While each student participating incurred costs of transportation, lodging and other accommodations, the college offset that cost by granting $15,000 to the effort, reducing students’ out of pocket cost by approximately $300. ALEC 380 is instructed by Assistant Professor Billy McKim, Ph.D.

“This trip is so unique because most universities would not let it happen,” McKim said. “I am fortunate to work in a place and for people who let me do this kind of thing because they value what it does for students. All of the stops had a very specific reason. There was a hidden purpose in almost everything we did.”

This is the second year that the experiential learning course has been offered and McKim helped determine this year’s syllabus based on reflections from the 2011 trip.

“The first time I went on this trip was with Texas State. When I came back I asked Dr. Elliot, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ and his response was that we could,” McKim said. “I started planning for the next year and at the same time the college started to push high impact learning. I started reading about it and incorporated some of that research into last year’s trip and almost everything this year was based on research saying that students need to reflect and present objectively what they learn and how important it is to see the connection between their coursework and what they experience.”

That outcome was evident as students reflected upon what they gained from the trip.

“This trip allowed us to experience the things that we have been learning about and apply it so that way it is something that we will actually retain not just throw out after the test,” Suzann Svatek, senior agricultural communications and journalism major, said.

As an instructor, McKim sees the benefit of high impact learning as it helps emphasize what he and other professors try to stress in the classroom.

“This class is the most work out of all that I teach, but it is by far the most rewarding,” McKim said. “Giving students opportunities to experience so many things in 10 days that they can apply to their classes, life and in their careers.”

Departing from College Station at midnight on October 21, they traveled to Joplin, Mo. and participated in community service activities to help the victims of the 2011 Joplin tornado.

“I gained a new sense of respect when we were helping families whose homes had been destroyed from a devastating tornado,” Michael Perez, agricultural leadership, education and communications graduate student said. “They were a community filled with pride and opportunity for hope.”

The first stop was influential on McKim as an instructor as well.

“When we pulled in to Joplin … you can’t teach that,” McKim said. “I can teach related topics like service learning, but I can’t teach students what it’s like to step into a devastated community.”

From Joplin, the group traveled to Columbia, Mo. where they toured the Amish and Mennonite communities in the surrounding area. Students were welcomed into the communities and had the opportunity to ask questions and note the diversity among the respective groups. That evening, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri gave campus tours and hosted the students for dinner on their Columbia campus.

“The topic of diversity will certainly affect me in the classroom as I will often deal with students of different backgrounds, learning styles and socioeconomic statuses,” Rachel Dominguez, senior agricultural science major said. “Having experience with how to handle diversity effectively will enable me to look past my differences with the students and embrace our common goal of exceptional education for all.”

The class traveled to Peoria, Ill. on Oct. 23 and toured the Caterpillar Track Factory. That evening, they had the option of touring the University of Illinois campus in Champaign.

“At first I didn’t really recognize how this would tie into service learning and diversity, but after seeing the production of the CAT equipment, I could better understand how each part of the system worked and how if one thing went wrong, it would impact the entire production,” Cailee Gilbreath, senior agricultural communications and journalism major said.

National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Ind. was the fourth stop for the group and they served as volunteers during the various national Career Development Events from Oct. 24-26. Students also had the opportunity to attend the opening session of National Convention featuring Olympic gold-medalist Scott Hamilton as the keynote speaker.

“The knowledge of how the CDE contests work and being able to participate from the administrator’s point of view was great and I will be able to use it in my future teaching career,” Meghann O’Brien, senior agricultural science major said.

After three days of service in Ind., the students and facilitators traveled to Louisville, Ky. where they toured Churchill Downs and the Wild Turkey Distillery on Oct. 27. While in Ky., they also visited the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

“I enjoyed Kentucky,” Anthony Pannone, agricultural leadership, education and communications graduate student said. “The state is beautiful. Churchill Downs is such a revered place and now I know why. Wild Turkey Distillery respects its heritage and the Kentucky Horse Park is where champions retire. I need to visit Kentucky again and soon.”

The group culminated their tour of the Midwest with a stop in Nashville, Tenn. Embracing the country music culture of the city, they visited with Bill Mayne of Country Radio Broadcasters and toured the Great American Country studio. While at GAC, they were filmed to be featured on the GAC Daily Countdown introducing next week’s number one song. The Nashville visit was capped off with a backstage tour of the Grand Ole Opry.

“Nashville had to be my favorite part,” Karina Farias, junior agricultural communications and journalism major said. “It made me realize that I really want to be in the broadcasting industry. Being on campus all the time you tend to forget that there is a whole world out there full of opportunities and one will never know about them if he or she does not go out and explore.”

Spending the night in Little Rock, Ark. for the evening, the group arrived back in College Station on Tues., Oct. 30 and will continue meeting weekly as students work on their final projects for the semester. The lessons gained from the experience are already noted in the lives of those who attended.

“I am an educator and remain committed to providing rich opportunities for my students to learn,” Sara Pena Ho, ALEC doctoral student, said. “Through this experience, I know the experiential field trip provided a much deeper understanding of agriculture and the individual organizations we visited than a professor could provide through a lecture format. Each student brought a different perspective, experience and background to the trip.”

The relationships established throughout the experience were also influential on faculty and students alike.

“I never knew I could grow so close to such a special group of people so different than myself in such a short amount of time,” Dominguez said.

The charter bus that served as the transportation for the entirety of the trip also contributed to the experience as a whole.

“The bus … cramped, smelly, annoying, calming, fun,” Pannone said. “Meeting and bonding with people I had barely known … the bus was the heart of the trip.”

McKim intends on offering the course, open to all students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, again next fall, revising it as seen fit by those who experienced this year’s class.

“The course will continue to evolve and we will continue to make the class and the trip. What we change is completely up to feedback of stakeholders including students, faculty, etc.,” McKim said.

Throughout and before the trip, students in ALEC 380 prepared blogs and reflective journals commemorating their experiences. Those blogs can be read by visiting this website. 

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