Nationally recognized teacher farms students into scientists

By Josette Keelor

Agricultural education isn’t what it used to be.

Nearly 30 years ago when Sherry Heishman started teaching agriculture at Central High School in Woodstock, a lot more of her students were raised on farms, and they looked to her for a different kind of education than today’s students do.

“They’re still interested in agriculture, but … I guess it’s more science-based,” she said. Previously focusing more on production of crops and the raising of animals, now her classes teach the “scientific side of why” with more “how-to reproduction.”

“I’m not physically teaching them to be farmers,” Heishman said. Now her goal is helping students “have an appreciation” for those who are — important in today’s world of genetically modified food and 24-hour supermarkets.

“We need to know where our food comes from, how it got to the table,” she said.

Recently named National Agriscience Teacher of the Year for Region VI of the National Association of Agricultural Educators, Heishman said she was less interested in the recognition than the reward.

She won $1,500 toward educational equipment for her classes, and she plans to pursue some new projects this coming school year.

Heishman’s classes fuse agriculture with technology — a subject her former student Derek Ritenour and winner of this year’s Region VI National Ideas Unlimited award understands.

Now an agriculture education teacher at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock, Ritenour was in Heishman’s class from 1998 to 2002.

“He was our tech person,” Heishman said. “He was the guy to come to.”

“For somebody to recognize his ability is absolutely awesome,” she said.

Region VI of the National Association of Agricultural Educators comprises Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. Heishman and Ritenour — who won for his Lego Mindstorm EV3 system of brainstorming solutions to problems in science, technology, engineering and math education — will be recognized for their accomplishments at the organization’s national convention Nov. 18-22 in Nashville.

According to Heishman, technology plays into agriculture by allowing farmers and scientists other ways of studying nature and monitoring its needs.

Scientific equipment she plans to purchase through Vernier Software & Technology with her $1,500 prize will help students test carbon dioxide and pH levels in soil.

Technology also speeds up farming by allowing the use of the Global Positioning System to track amounts of fertilizer in the ground.

In recent years, Shenandoah County agriculture students have earned several recognitions for their work through the Future Farmers of America. As Central High’s chapter adviser, Heishman said her students learn even more when they leave the valley and encounter the greater industry.

At national conventions, she said, her students meet others who might live on 10,000 acres, and “they have 10 acres at home.”

She met a teenager from Montana whose father owns six ranches, “and he had been to only two of them. … Just because they’re so big.”

“I think this kid drove 40 miles to school,” Heishman said.

But even matched against the homegrown farmers of the Midwest and the ranchers of Big Sky Country, agriculture students from Shenandoah County still hold their own against other agri-scientists of tomorrow.

Two of her students, sisters Emily and Lacey Disart of Woodstock, were named among 15 finalists for a project they submitted to the National Future Farmers of America Association and will compete for the championship in Louisville, Kentucky, in October.

“Fifteen minutes ago, I just found this out,” Heishman said on Friday afternoon.

Asked about her own win, she said, “It’s not about me being the winner.”

She said her science department shares equipment with agriculture classes, but sometimes it’s difficult getting access to “bigger and better.”

Now, she said, “They’ll get their hands on more technology than they normally would.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com