Texas Tech University

Agricultural Communications Project Aims to Develop Critical Thinkers

George Watson

April 27, 2016

Courtney Meyers

Professor Courtney Meyers is part of a USDA project with two other universities that will utilize case studies to increase students’ critical thinking skills.

Courtney Meyers

More and more, employers are seeking job candidates who possess critical-thinking skills, giving them the ability to process large amounts of information and apply it to solutions that best address a company's problem.

Critical-thinking skills are becoming increasingly important in the field of communication. One Texas Tech University professor in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications is part of a study funded by the United States Department of Agriculture that will examine increasing critical-thinking skills through the use of case studies.

Courtney Meyers, an associate professor of agricultural communications in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, is partnering with colleagues at the University of Florida and Colorado State University for research aimed at getting students to improve their problem-solving skills in complex situations through examples laid out in geographically relevant case studies.

“We want to write these case studies with the unique context of communicating about agricultural topics,” Meyers said. “Critical thinking is one of those soft skills everyone wants, but it's really hard to wrap your mind around what it looks like. If nothing else, we're trying to help students understand that we're not going to be able to teach them everything they need to know by the time they leave, but we will educate them how to learn, evaluate, synthesize the facts and make good decisions.”

Making a case

In the study, which received a $267,000, three-year grant from the Higher Education Challenge (HEC) program administered by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, five case studies will be created, developed and used to evaluate and increase students' critical-thinking skills. The case studies also will be geographically relevant to the universities using them.

Case Study
TAWC Case Study

At Texas Tech, Meyers will use two case studies. The first centers around the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC), which hopes to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer by researching production practices and technology that improves farm productivity and increases water use efficiency. Meyers said the case study will look at the use of more informal educational opportunities and interpersonal communication networks to communicate about the research being done by the TAWC.

The second case at Texas Tech will center on the recent struggles of the Blue Bell Ice Cream company in the wake of its shutdown due to listeria in its production plants. Meyers' students will examine the company's branding and reputation management in the wake of its shutdown and recent return.

“It was able to bounce back from that recall because it had such a strong brand and managed its reputation well leading into that, through that and coming out of it,” Meyers said.

Case Study

Two case studies in Florida will examine citrus greening, which Meyers said could be applied to south Texas in the future, and the coastal health along Apalachicola, Florida, and how the delicate and complicated ecosystem has recovered from man-made and natural disasters. The case study at Colorado State has yet to be finalized but will deal with animal welfare and health.

“The goal of these case studies is to throw students into situations where it's not clear what the right answer is and help them talk about what they would do in those situations,” Meyers said. “Critical thinking, to me, is one of those underlying traits every employer is looking for in an employee.”

Meyers said some case studies will allow students to view multimedia presentations on those topics where they can discuss what the key message would be, practice writing statements and then view videos of company representatives delivering key statements so students can see how close they were.

Also, students will be administered an assessment called the University of Florida Critical Thinking Instrument (UFCTI) that will measure, both before and after the class, students' self-reported critical-thinking skills. Students also will write and reflect on what they have learned, giving the test both qualitative and quantitative approaches.

“Critical thinking requires emotional maturity and intelligence,” Meyers said. “Employers want students who not only know the subject matter but also know how to take lots of information and come up with good decisions and recommendations based on that.”

The design of the study is to include both graduate students and undergraduate. Meyers said while critical thinking doesn't have an all-encompassing definition, employers are looking for students who are mature, knowledgeable, can manage their time well and can handle multiple tasks, and those are the underlying characteristics that help develop critical thinkers.

Faculty component

The research project won't be just for students. The hope is by the end of the project the case studies can be implemented into a curriculum used by other professors, not just at Texas Tech but elsewhere around the country.

The timeline for the project, Meyers said, is to have the case studies fully developed through the summer and implement them into one of her classes in the fall while her colleague at Florida does the same. That way they can judge whether using the case studies is an efficient way to spend time in the classroom, whether they need to be expanded or if the students struggle at certain points. The process will repeat in the spring semester.

Hopefully, she said, researchers can promote the case studies to other universities in the summer of 2017 to promote the research and have other professors use it as well. Meyers said she has colleagues at five other universities who have expressed an interest in testing the case studies that are developed, and that having them tried in classes will be the true test of their success.

“People who are not project developers can understand the curriculum and developments and how it works for them, and we can continue to refine it as it is implemented more fully,” Meyers said. “We also will be developing a website where all the materials and links to videos can be found, making it more accessible for others.”

Eventually, Meyers would like to see Texas Tech become the epicenter for critical thinking and case study development when it comes to agricultural communication. It would help the farmers and ranchers in the fields be better equipped to deal with the changes agriculture faces today and in the future.

“There are bigger issues at play here where we have fewer people directly engaged in production agriculture, and now we're four or five generations removed from the farm in some cases,” Meyers said. “We also have a number of students who come to us who do not have traditional production-agriculture backgrounds. So these case studies will be a nice way to expose them to the system-based approach to agriculture and how to communicate with people on these topics.”