“What I love most about what I teach is that every day and course is different. While we live in a rural community, our students are often three to four generations removed from the farm yet we as a society expect them to make choices about trades skills that are that are often gained from life experiences. All students should know basic skills like how to change their oil, a spark plug, fix their lawn mower or change a tire.”

Since 2011, Melissa Hageman has taught STEM agriculture mechanics and engineering at her alma mater, South Winneshiek High School in Calmar, Iowa. She returned to rejuvenate the program after the funding was cut and the shop was turned into a weight room. Growing up on a farm instilled in Hagerman a deep passion for agriculture, and she has rebuilt her school’s program through ingenuity and determination. Under her leadership, she has created for her students a refurbished shop with state-of-the-art equipment, leading to an exponential growth in student enrollment.

Hageman was the first in her family to attend a four-year college and earned her Associates of Science with Biological and General Science and Agricultural emphases from Northeast Iowa Community College in 2008, BS in Agricultural Education from University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2010, and an MS in Agriculture Education from Iowa State University in 2014.

When she took over at South Winneshiek 7 years ago, she had 7 class periods with 5-10 students per course. Under her stewardship, her courses now range from 10-22 students, with three courses having enrollments of over 20. Before winning the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools 2018 Prize for Teaching Excellence, she wrote successful grants that brought in more than $167,000 to her program.

A typical year in the agricultural mechanic’s pathway course could consist of building wind turbines, calculating gear ratios, making prototypes and surveying systems, designing electrical circuits and creating hydraulic systems. Hageman fills students’ days with activities, problems and projects that align with real world applications. Due to the rigor, relevance, and national accreditations of her course, students are able to get a head start on college, with up to 10 credits of transfer-level advanced placement skills.

Hageman emphasizes the importance of experimentation and exploration inside and outside the classroom. Her students complete a Supervised Agriculture Experience, where they design an hands-on project outside of the classroom, develop technical and soft skills, and form networks with local professionals. The hands-on trade and soft skills taught in her classes help students run their own businesses, which have a combined $35,000 in gross sales.

“I promote changing the societal misconception that everyone needs a four-year degree. I tell parents and students that often skilled trades degrees and apprenticeships in the areas mentioned in this video will provide them with an excellent and successful career choice post-high school. Many students begin their freshman year thinking they have to go to a four-year program. By their senior year, many students are traveling a quarter of a mile away to the local trade school and earning two-year degrees in plumbing, electricity, and welding in addition to agriculture mechanics.”