Meet The Fellows - Melanie Berndtson
Grow with Google and the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture have selected the Farm Bureau Foundation Fellows, who will create lessons that make digital skills and agricultural literacy more accessible to students across the country, with a focus on rural classrooms.The Fellows will focus on equipping rural students with classroom and career-focused digital skills while introducing students across the country to fundamental agricultural concepts.
Meet Melanie Berndtson:
Melanie Berndtson grew up splitting her time between a suburban community in New Hampshire and the small farm her father owned.
While her friends and classmates were preparing for careers in nine-to-five office jobs, Melanie was most excited about her weekends on the farm and working with animals.
Although her school counselors encouraged her to focus on college track classes, by her junior year, Melanie was spending increasing amounts of time in her school’s vocational animal and plant science program. There she became an active member of FFA, which gave her the opportunity to learn first-hand many of the things she felt she’d missed by not growing up full-time on a farm.
Hooked on learning more about animal science, Melanie set her sights on gaining direct experience with animals and agriculture. She enrolled in the University of New Hampshire Thompson School to earn an associate's degree in applied animal science.
While at an FFA meeting, Melanie’s Ag teacher passed her a note that read, “You should be an Ag teacher.” That note changed her life. Melanie went on to get her bachelor’s degree in agriculture education at the University of New Hampshire and her master’s in agriculture and extension education at Penn State.
“I still have that sticky note,” she says. “That one little thing made such an impact on me, and my future career.”
Over the course of her 15 years at Wellsboro Area High School, Melanie has become passionate about helping students and other teachers understand how sustainable agriculture can help build strong and vibrant communities. Melanie points to Wellsboro as an example of a small town that is thriving at a time when many similar communities are losing young people and job opportunities to larger cities.
“Agriculture is not only the lifeblood of many smaller communities, it’s what feeds the world. So to me, figuring out how to make agriculture more sustainable is one of the world’s most important priorities,” Melanie explains. “I try to get people to see the bigger picture–what can we do today to build agricultural systems and communities that will still be thriving 100 or more years from now?”
This approach includes teaching students about regenerative farming, as well as showing them how to build careers and businesses that go hand-in-hand with agriculture. “When it comes to agriculture, long-term sustainable thinking is what builds communities and strong local economies. It’s also what will help us feed the world.” Melanie sees this ag-centered community building approach as a blueprint for other small town and rural communities to follow.
“I believe in the power of educating students to be more well-informed participants in the agricultural industry,” she says. “We're helping them develop into responsible members of society who connect to their local communities and have an appreciation of where their food comes from, where their natural resources are found, and how to protect them.”
Melanie knows that educators will be critical in driving this change. “I’m really excited about helping other teachers create connections between agriculture and whatever students are passionate about. If we can get kids everywhere excited about agriculture, we can change the world,” she explains.
In her own work, Melanie has secured more than $100,000 in grants and equipment that have helped her transform her school's Ag program into a focal point for the community. Inspired by her own educational journey, she encourages her students to gain real-world, hands-on experience, including FFA and Supervised Agricultural Experiences projects, such as job shadowing veterinarians, volunteering to stock trout in local streams, breeding and training small animals, and planting shade trees around the community of Wellsboro.
As a Farm Bureau Foundation Fellow, Melanie is excited to inspire the next generation of students and teachers in agriculture through her passion for hands-on learning and sustainable agriculture. Melanie is excited to show students how technology and innovation can help solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges in sustainability — from land use, to water management, to feeding the world’s growing population. She is also working to develop a place-based curriculum that incorporates agriculture, technology, and digital skills into a lesson on Google’s Applied Digital Skills platform.