By CAROLYN DRYER, Editor the Peoria Times

When a professor from a prestigious university from back East pays a compliment to a teacher, you learn to look at the agricultural teaching profession differently. This is an observation made during a class taught by Brian Fuller at Peoria (AZ) High School.

James Michael Goatley is a professor of crop, soil and environmental sciences and extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech University. He was accompanied by Jeff Fowler, county extension director in Venango and Forest counties in Northwest Pennsylvania, and Penn State University cooperative extension director.

It was Goatley who said, after watching Fuller interact with his students, he had never seen a high school class so structured. There was a three-page curriculum guide for that day’s lesson on thatch. That’s right, thatch, that dead clump or gathering of grass clippings that finds its way between topsoil and grass leaf growth.

Fuller told students to go ahead and use their iPhones to obtain the definition of thatch. Then, he took the entire class outside to the miniature golf course on campus to search for thatch, rake the grass, use a plunger to extract a two-inch by two-inch by two-inch cube, measure the thickness of the thatch, and observe for themselves, and lastly, make notes.

The two professors were brought to the campus by Peoria Sports Complex employees Chris Calcaterra (sports facilities manager of the Peoria Sports Complex), and Brandon Putman (City of Peoria sports facilities maintenance coordinator).

Before you start thinking this is just another feel good story about a teacher in the classroom, stop. Read these words. This could be the beginning of a first of its kind four-year course of study that could likely lead to a major career in turf management for students.

Turf management sounds like something an ordinary gardener or landscaper does anyway, right? It’s more than that.

As Calcaterra and Putnam explained, it has to do with new cultivares, grasses, water quality, water consumption, pesticides, fertilizers, and how decisions are made about each.

Putnam said use of water is important because a lot of golf courses have gone to reclaimed water. It has been proven that reclaimed water goes through a purifying process once it is used for irrigation.

Calcaterra said what he and others in the turf management profession struggle with is trying to get education into the right hands. Although he and other management personnel at the sports complex hire students from the PHS ag program as interns for a variety of chores, what would be really helpful is a student with more knowledge about the sports turf field.

PHS principal Paul Bower said, “If we as a school could take that over …”

He stood in the hallway of the agricultural building at the school, thought for a moment, then continued, “If kids could take that over, have our kids take an ownership in our sports field here, that would be huge.”

Goatley said, “This could be a school Field of the Year from our organization.”

The organization? Sports Turf Management Association, which was having its board of directors conference in the Valley two weeks ago. Goatley and Fowler serve on the board, and were invited by local STMA members Calcaterra and Putnam to take a tour of the PHS agriculture program.

Bower said it would take several steps to get a four-year turf management program implemented at PHS– and the big step would be approval by the Peoria Unified School District Governing Board. Along the way, it would have to be approved by the career and technical education director, the curriculum director, and district superintendent.

Goatley said what STMA needs to know is whether high school is the appropriate level of science and could it meet the needs of the district, school, and students.

Fuller, the PHS teacher, is already teaching a secondary level pilot curriculum developed by STMA education manager Kristen Althouse.

Reached by phone at STMA headquarters in Lawrence, Kan., Althouse said the curriculum is set up for a semester or a marking period. It really depends on the school year.

“We are in the pilot phase right now and testing out the timing on it,” Althouse said. “We’re not sure what timing to expect.”

STMA has other pilot sites in the northwest and northeast.

“There are different things we want to evaluate with the curriculum: timing, how easy it is to implement the lessons, activities, how receptive students are, if a lesson is too difficult at that level, and is it difficult for instructors to interpret and teach,” Althouse said.

There are five units to the curriculum Fuller teaches at PHS. Althouse created the project for her master’s degree in agriculture and extension education, and developed it with advisor assistance,

The first unit of the curriculum is introduction to turf grass management Second is turf grass anatomy, identification and growth. Three is soil. Four is cultural practices, which includes mowing, fertility, irrigation, aeration, and top dressing, thatch, integrated pest management, weeds, insects, diseases, and pesticides. Five is turf grass establishment.

At the end of the fall lesson period, Fuller will fill out an evaluation report, which includes student feedback, and meet through a conference call with the STMA committee.

“We’ll tweak things from there,” Althouse said.

She believes turf grass programs could develop into a four-year program.

“One of the goals of the curriculum is to prepare high school students for a career right out of high school, or enough knowledge to enter a turf management program in college,” Althouse said. “Some of the careers they can pursue are golf course supervisors, assistant golf course supervisors, irrigation techs, spray techs, work on sports fields, and a lot of different branches, pro, college, high school, and parks and rec.”

There is also lawn care and landscaping, research and teaching, “so they can be at universities to be at the forefront,” Althouse said.

Also, students could look into commercial careers with equipment manufacturers such as Toro, or in the product field such as fertilizer, seed and sod. Two more career paths include construction – building sports fields and golf courses – or the architectural side.

“There’s a lot of careers in the turf industry,” Althouse said.

It’s not just about watering and mowing. And, Althouse and the STMA is out there to make people think about different careers instead of what they tend to forget: the science of soil, water, amounts and frequency, plants and how they grow, and the nutrients they need.

It starts with educating students, and they’re right here in Peoria.

SportsField Management