Willis brings a love of science and ag to CTE agriscience program.

December 8, 2020

Mark Willis

Willis brings a love of science and ag to CTE agriscience program.

By Kate Krieger-Watkins, staff writer. 

West Shore School News is a presentation of West Shore Educational Service District in partnership with Mason County Press and Oceana County Press. 

VICTORY TWP (Mason County) – Teaching during a pandemic has been a challenge for most educators, especially those who teach hands-on classes. For Mark Willis, he has had additional challenges as he started as the new West Shore Educational Service District agriscience teacher this fall. The class requires students to care for plants and animals, a difficult task since face-to-face learning has been suspended since the middle of November. 

Willis joined the Career and Technical Education staff in August, after working the past eight years as a high school teacher and coach at Ludington Area School District. 

“The AgriScience course is designed to introduce students to concepts of agriculture and natural resource management through the production of their food from the ground up,” Willis said. “The class enables students to actively engage with industry professionals as they learn to handle livestock, manage plant systems from crop production, and gain experience with forestry and fisheries. There is a strong emphasis on animal care (we have animals on campus), plant systems, teamwork, and career readiness. Each student chooses a supervisory agricultural experience as an individual project where they can explore their area of interest. Through the course students will develop leadership skills and earn scholarships by participating in Future Farmers of America (FFA), a national organization for students in agricultural education.”

Willis grew up in Aurora, Ill. where he graduated from Waubonise Valley High School; the high school had 2,800 students. He received a bachelor’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a major in fisheries and wildlife. 

“I left a fisheries position after a year to pursue a teaching degree in biology, he said. “That led to a master’s degree in teaching from National Louis University in Wheaton, Ill. I student taught in Naperville, Ill. at Neuqua Valley High School, which led to a teaching position in advance placement environmental science and earth science. I left there after meeting my future wife, Jeanne, in Ludington.”

Willis was hired by Hart Public Schools in 2004 to teach biology, earth science, and advanced environmental science. There, he was active in also teaching agriculture classes. He also coached the boys and girls track and field team while there.

He was then hired at Ludington in 2012 where he taught biology/earth science, advanced environmental science and also was head track and field coach. 

Willis said his move from Ludington High School to CTE wasn’t easy, but he has been enjoying the new experiences and challenges that the position faces, especially now with all the precautions of COVID-19.

“The decision was not easy, but change is good,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to work with students focusing on agriculture and natural resources. I enjoy both the classroom and hands-on learning. I believe in the phrase ‘seeing is believing.’ I see the position as a passionate teacher and mentor for students who want to go into an agriculture/natural resource job. I firmly believe God put me into teaching the environment because it is my drive and passion. I believe students need to have an environmental ethic. They also need to understand this quote by Aldo Leopold, which has become more valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.’”

Because west Michigan has so much opportunity in agriscience and natural resources careers, Willis said he has many students who take his class with hopes of staying local and working in one of the fields they are exposed to during his class, or they attend his class because they come from a family who already is involved in some type of agricultural career and they want to expand on their knowledge. 

“Students complete agriculture standards/benchmarks set for by the state of Michigan CTE program, FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America), ICEV online, and options for different accreditations and certifications related to ag/natural resources,” Willis said. “The class is set up to be a mix of hands-on learning with a year-long research project, greenhouse management, animal husbandry, and classroom instruction. Students take the course because they love agriculture, natural resources, and the outdoor setting that this great area has to offer. Many of these students will pursue a degree or job in veterinary science, agriculture, or natural resources. Some of the students may use the skills from the course later in life. Examples include, landscaping their yard, managing a piece of property, caring for livestock, or just doing what is right for the environment.”

Along with getting a lot of hands-on experience, students also learn how to work as a team as well as doing individual projects.

“I cannot think of a more powerful class to offer at CTE than agriscience,” he said. “The course offers a general background in soils, forestry, wildlife, waters, greenhouse management, and aquaculture. The nice thing about CTE is that students come from various backgrounds in different school districts who want to be here. The class is very relational, and the students become more than individual learners but rather a team.”

COVID-19 has definitely put a damper on the traditional ways of doing things in Willis’ class. They cannot have in-class speakers and the majority of their work with others needs to be done outdoors. With the recent safeguards from Gov. Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, putting all Michigan high school students online, instead of the classroom, things have become even harder for students, especially because a lot of their work happens in the classroom or on the campus  of West Shore Community College.

“COVID-19 has greatly affected the class,” Willis said. “CTE started out in person, but field trips and guest speakers (an exciting part of class) were put on hold unless in an outdoor setting. The students still had the ability to come to class and learn with a mask on and take care of their livestock. The class changed due to state orders by having to go virtual November 19. The class is now being taught online with ICEV, and Canvas being the major teaching tools for submitting assignments and projects. Students are still responsible for all work and journaling their secondary agriculture experience. Many students have taken their animals or plants home to research.”

Willis said he and his students look forward to when they can be back in the classroom to resume much of their hands-on learning and team building skills, but until then, they will remain working together via a computer instead of in-person.

“The drive or heart of CTE comes from awesome educators that teach at West Shore CTE program and the leadership of Principal Dale Horowski and Superintendent Jason Jefferies.”

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