Agriscience Fair mentors coach young researchers

Agriscience Fair mentors coach young researchers

Jun 20
Courtney Walker, ACES Communications Graduate Intern

Each year, hundreds of students across the country get their feet wet in research through the National FFA Organization’s AgriScience Fair . Some of the nation’s most curious young agricultural researchers select, propose, and complete projects that highlight the science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) components of agriculture, including:

•    Animal Systems
•    Environmental Services/Natural Resource Systems
•    Food Products and Processing Systems
•    Plant Systems
•    Power, Structural, and Technical Systems
•    Social Science

To bolster these young researcher’s inquiry skills, the University of Illinois Agricultural Education Program piloted a researcher mentorship program this year. Erica Thieman, assistant professor in agricultural science education, matched research methods graduate students with high school agriscience fair participants through the research proposals process. The volunteer mentors and agriscience fair contestants focused on preparing posters and proposals to submit to the state competition. 

Abigail Petersen, graduate student in agricultural leadership education, explains why she volunteered to work with an agrscience fair participant this spring. “Mentoring students has always been a passion of mine,” she says. “Plus, it’s really fun to see what high school students are up to these days!”

Petersen adds that she hopes her coaching allowed her mentee to communicate his research’s proceedings and results more clearly at the state competition. “My student did some amazing work studying allelopathy in plants. Working with him to improve his research and writing skills will help him on his project and in his future in agriscience.”

Petersen, a pre-doctoral fellow in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences , understands the importance of clear communication in research writing. “Academic writing is very specific,” she says, “therefore, it is not easily done.” 

Petersen’s role as an agriscience fair mentor is to edit her mentee’s research paper to ensure the paper is both scientific and succinct. “Academic writing is a special type of writing that clearly discusses the process in which scientific research occurs and the findings and conclusions that come out of that process,” she says. “Mentors help teach these students how to communicate their research clearly and scientifically.”

According to Petersen, clearly communicating research is not an easy task. “Writing in an academic fashion takes practice and mentorship, which is where we come in,” she says.

Petersen knows the value of an academic mentor first-hand. “In the STEM field, there are specific checklists you have to follow to ensure sound scientific findings. It’s a very steep learning curve,” she says. “It helps if you have someone who’s gone through the process to coach you along the way.”

“Everyone goes through a time when they don’t feel as if they are smart enough or organized enough to be successful in a STEM field, but having a good mentor to help you along the way helps dissipate those doubts,” she says.

That’s why Petersen says she’ll continue to volunteer to mentor students. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentors who said they believed in me,” she says.

Last week, Illinois students in grades 7 through 12 competed in their age division and topic category at the state contest held at the Illinois FFA Convention. Those students who won in their division and category are set to move on to compete at the National FFA Convention in October. You can find a list of these winners on the Illinois Association FFA’s website later this month. 

agriscience fair dinner paper
Participants and judges in the 2017 Illinois Association FFA AgriScience Fair celebrated a year of hard work at a dinner Tuesday night.