December 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 6 // Research in Brief // 6RIB1

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The Influence of Experiential Instruction on Urban Elementary Students' Knowledge of the Food and Fiber System

This research compared student knowledge of the food and fiber system of three groups of inner-city, minority, fifth, sixth, and fifth/sixth combination students in Los Angeles during a ten-week instructional unit in science. Two groups were taught by way of experiential learning (including short, in-class projects and gardening projects). A control group was taught in a traditional expository manner. Both experiential treatment groups were positively impacted when pre-test data were compared with post-test data on food and fiber competency. Extension professionals possess the expertise to assist teachers in introducing experiential activities into their science curriculum.

Rachel Mabie
Urban Horticulturalist
University of California Cooperative Extension
Los Angeles County
Internet Address:

Matt Baker
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural Education and Communication
University of Florida
Internet Address:


Richardson (1994) reported that although John Dewey is best known as the primary advocate of experiential learning, Seaman Knapp also believed that clients learned best when they were provided the opportunity to practice new skills. Richardson summarized by stating "our desire is to create experiential educational opportunities for our clientele by planned design rather than experiential opportunities by accident."

There is increasing concern regarding the public's literacy of the food and fiber system (W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1984; Russell, 1993). Concurrently, Extension's involvement in formal education programs has increased. McKenna (1987) asserted that Extension has a role in formal education. In a study to assist Cooperative Extension professionals in working with public schools, Smith, Hill, Matranga, and Good (1995) reported that curriculum infusion efforts by Extension should be more than simply sharing instructional materials. The purpose of this study was to assess two types of experiential activities to improve students' literacy of the food and fiber industry.


Data were collected in two urban, inner-city Los Angeles schools during the spring of 1993. One school, in East Los Angeles, had a student population about 99% Hispanic. The other school, in South Central Los Angeles, had a student population that was 75% African-American and 25% Hispanic. Five fifth grade, sixth grade, or fifth/sixth combination classrooms participated in the study.

These groups were randomly assigned to the following treatments: (a) a ten-week garden project consisting of a fifth/sixth combination class and a sixth grade class (56 students), (b) a ten week series of three short in-class projects (including bread baking, chick rearing, and seed germination) for two of the fifth grade classes (57 students), and (c) one control group, a fifth/sixth combination classroom that received no treatment (31 students).

The treatments (gardening project and short in-class projects) were developed for integration into a 10-week instructional unit in science. The teacher of the control group did not include the specific food and fiber competencies in the curricula. Gardening instruction was structured as a 15-20 minute session of lecture, discussion, and demonstration in the classroom, followed by group gardening activities. Lessons were one hour each week for the ten-week period. Three days (one day per week) were spent on each of the short, in-class projects (bread baking, chick rearing, and seed germination). An emphasis was placed on observing each project as it progressed, recording observations, making predictions, and discussing outcomes.

The data collection for this descriptive study involved researcher observation of student written responses to a series of questions on a pre-test and post-test instrument developed by the researchers and reviewed for validity by a panel of experts. The instrument was designed to find out how much children knew about where food comes from, their level of awareness of careers in agriculture, and their understanding of the social, economic, and environmental significance of agriculture. The instrument was piloted-tested with fifth graders at another inner-city Los Angeles school. The Kuder-Richardson 20 reliability coefficient was .74. The data were analyzed using the SPSS+/PC statistical package.


The students participating in this study appeared to know little about the food and fiber system. When asked "What is agriculture?" on the pre-test only 32% of students in the control group, 21% of students in the garden group, and 3% of students in the short projects group could give a basic definition. After participating in the ten-week program, many more students were able to answer the question. While only 43% of control group respondents gave an appropriate response (11% increase from pre- test scores), 91% of participants in the garden group (70% increase), and 83% of the students in the short projects group (80% increase) gave acceptable answers.

The students showed little understanding of the food and fiber system in their state. On the pre-test, 42% of control group students, 25% of garden group students, and 36% of short project students knew that California was the nation's leading farm state. On the post-test, 50% of control respondents (8% increase from pretest scores), 78% of garden respondents (53% increase), and 78% of short project respondents (42% increase), were aware of their state's status in agriculture.

Students were asked to list three crops growing on California farms. On the pre-test, only 39% of control group respondents, 16% of garden group respondents and 30% of short project respondents could list three California crops. Although there was no change in the control group, 54% of garden group participants (38% increase from pretest scores), and 50% of short project participants (20% increase) were able to list three crops grown by farmers in California.

Most students were unfamiliar with important terminology associated with the food and fiber system. They were largely unfamiliar with a list of careers relating to the subject area, including forester, entomologist, landscape architect, dairy farmer, and plant breeder. Both methods of instruction seemed useful in raising their awareness.

However, the students did understand the origin of most common food and fiber products. Most students were aware that tortillas come from corn, bacon comes from pigs, tee-shirts come from cotton, and wool blankets come from sheep.

Sixty-nine percent of control-group participants, 45% of garden group participants, and 42% of short project participants said that agriculture was interesting on the pre-test. On the posttest, the percentage of "yes" respondents in the control group declined to 54% (-15% decrease), and increased to 83% in the garden group (38% increase), and 85% in the short projects group (43% increase).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The urban fifth and sixth graders participating in this study knew very little about the food and fiber system before completing a ten-week series of experimental activities. Very few children could give a basic definition of the word agriculture itself. Students for the most part could not name crops grown by producers in their state. They were unfamiliar with related careers, and common terminology, such as irrigation, pesticides, and drought. The students' knowledge increased through participation in the activities. Many more were able to identify related careers. As a result, students went from knowing very little to becoming quite knowledgeable.

Based on this research, Extension professionals should assist teachers in introducing experiential activities into their science curriculum. The method selected can be based on their own preference, or that of the students. Some teachers may prefer gardening as it gets students outside and can be used as a focal point throughout the school year for studying science, math, and social studies. In-class projects may be more appealing to other teachers because of the shorter time frame involved in preparing for and completing the projects. In addition, many schools may not have the resources needed for a gardening project.

It is critical to ensure that today's youth grow up with a basic understanding of the food and fiber system. People should be capable of making educated decisions on issues in the voting booth as well as in their personal lives. Such knowledge should be a part of every child's education, starting in kindergarten and continuing through higher education.

Unfortunately, many literacy programs place little emphasis on experiential activities. Lesson plans often focus on crossword puzzles and fill-in-the-blank worksheets. In this format, the subject matter seems to lose the qualities that make it exciting. The food and fiber industry must look closely at how to make instructional materials more valuable to children. How can the subject best be used to help generate excitement for learning? Hopefully, future research will look closely at these issues.


McKenna, P.G. (1987). Extension goes to high school: Bringing agriculture to the inner city. Journal of Extension, 25 (4).

Richardson, J.G. (1994). Learning best through experience. Journal of Extension, 32 (2).

Russell, E.B. (1993). Attracting youth to agriculture. Journal of Extension, 31 (4).

Smith, M. Hill, G.C., Matranga, M., & Good, A. (1995). Working with high-risk youth: A collaborative approach. Journal of Extension, 33 (3).

W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (1984). Cultivating agricultural literacy: Challenge for the liberal arts. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation.