The educational equivalent of learning to swim by jumping into the deep end of the pool. Some teachers may have felt that happened when they switched from teaching in person to answering kids’ questions via Zoom and providing lessons on the internet.

I had a deep-end-of-the-pool feeling as a beginning ag teacher when my district expected a first-of-its-kind program in the state and my alma mater, the University of Wyoming, offered no teaching resources for me. The University of Illinois’ ag education resource center provided ag business materials for my students in Wheatland, Wyoming.

Today, teachers in 45 states are turning to an Illinois-based ag education center for online lessons, quizzes and materials. They’re teaching ag and other career tech courses that we knew as home economics, industrial arts, business and health occupations.

Now it makes sense to put educational resources online so they can be found, shared and used. But not in the early ‘90s before widespread internet use. “First, it (curriculum) was in notebooks,” said Jay Runner, a former ag teacher and one of the first Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education (FCAE) field advisers who later became its state coordinator.

Jay and I marveled how steps taken nearly 30 years ago are helping teachers cope with pandemic conditions no one could have anticipated.

“The driving force behind the (ag curriculum) initiative was to develop curriculum and make it free across the state,” explained Runner.

“The changes we’re experiencing today (in career tech education) are because of all of that. That was due to the forefathers of ag education, Jim Guilinger (first FCAE leader), Gordon Bidner, Perry Schneider and Max Foster.”

Their goal – update and improve high school ag programs around the state. Start by developing science-based curriculum linked to state learning standards. Before that, ag teachers had courses approved by the state, “but resources were textbooks or whatever you could find. There was not a lot continuity across the state,” Runner explained. The Illinois State Board of Education wanted consistency among career tech programs.

In this chicken-and-egg scenario, the core ag curriculum came first after several years of work. All 8,500 pages distributed in binders.

Next evolution? Putting all the ag lessons – plus state learning standards – on a CD.

“It’s an awesome piece of machinery and we haven’t even scratched the surface,” the late Guilinger told me for a story about the new CD. Not only did Illinois ag teachers welcome the CD, but ag teachers in other states also clamored for copies and wanted presentations from Illinois ag educators about it. And other career tech fields took notice.

Think of it – 183 lessons on a CD. Today, more than 1,000 ag-related lessons, quizzes and resources are online through CAERT (Center for Agricultural and Environmental Research and Training) along with another 2,000 lesson plans for other career tech courses.

“We didn’t anticipate it (updated ag curriculum) being the critical piece of education for where we are now,” Runner said. “It’s good to know these viable (online) resources are available and students are not being shortchanged on content. We had no idea this (pandemic) would happen, but it’s tremendous opportunity (for online career tech resources).”

Guilinger put it best. Ag ed: “we haven’t even scratched the surface.”

Kay Shipman serves as FarmWeek legislative affairs editor and a longtime member of the Illinois Leadership Council for Agricultural Education.