As the importance of agricultural education increases, the National Ranching Heritage Center continues to provide educators with innovative classroom tools and has future plans that will bring Hank the Cowdog to life.
Merely three years ago, author John R. Erickson partnered with the NRHC to publish an informative series of children’s books narrated by his witty character, Hank. The books, known as the Ranch Life Learning series, incorporate ranching, agriculture and wildlife into public school curriculums and casts Hank in his new role as a teacher.
Julie Hodges is the Helen DeVitt Jones Endowed director of education at the NRHC. Hodges is devoted to the message behind the Ranch Life Learning series and has worked closely in the development of a corresponding curriculum guide.
“We’ve done some really cool things that I’m pretty proud of,” Hodges said.
In the last three years, Hodges and the NRHC have implemented the Ranch Life Learning series into 60 school districts across the nation, distributing more than 45,000 copies.
With the original plan of a three-book series, Hodges was ecstatic to announce the publication of two additional books.
“Book four will focus on ranch weather,” Hodges said, “and book five will focus on prairie fires.”
Erickson, the series author, lost his own ranch to prairie fires in 2017. Erickson hopes to depict prairie fire management techniques in book five by reflecting on his own experiences.
“It’s a really interesting book and will hopefully help students in this area understand prairie fire more clearly,” Hodges said, “because there’s a lot of mystery to it.
Based on the success of the first three books, the Ranch Life Learning series has been developed into a multi-faceted curriculum plan. This carefully developed curriculum includes classroom activities, reading strategies, and teaching guides. The series covers topics such as economics, business, geography and animal breeds.
The Ranch Life Learning curriculum is implemented into classes such as social studies, science, reading and more. By frequently updating curriculums and developing new activities, the NRHC is leading a progressive trend in agricultural education. Hodges said training and providing educators with curriculum guides has been very successful.
“It gives teachers the flexibility of when and how to incorporate it into their curriculum,” Hodges said.
Using a cross-curriculum allows educators to utilize activities and lessons across many different courses. With the help of exceptional educators, Hodges said agricultural education will continue to impact and engage with young minds.
“I see it as a project that will never be finished and it’s something that we can always find ways to enhance,” Hodges said.
Jim Bret Campbell, executive director of the National Ranching Heritage Center, is also closely involved with the Ranch Life Learning series. Campbell said curriculum developers work hard to create educational and engaging content.
“They mostly focus on horses, wildlife and ranch livestock,” Campbell said.
Campbell said the NRHC has big plans for the future of Ranch Life Learning. These plans include the development of the Ranch Life Learning Center exhibit, located on the NRHC property.
The purpose of this interactive exhibit is to answer the frequent question; what is a ranch?
“The Ranch Life Learning Center will be an indoor-outdoor permanent exhibit that will answer questions with the help of Hank the Cowdog,” Hodges said.
Hodges said when the NRHC opened its doors, the community was still very in touch with the meaning of agriculture. But times have changed, and an interactive exhibit will not only bring the Ranch Life Learning series to life, but also encourage agricultural education of the public.
The exhibit will be large-scale and feature interactive technology and activities. The NRHC has been awarded a grant for planning the project but will require additional funding for the building process.
“We’ve made progress raising about a quarter of the funds needed,” Hodges said as she flipped through a binder. “And, we are actively pursuing the rest.”
The Ranch Life Learning Center is currently in the planning phase. By utilizing the skills of professional designers and architects, the NRHC hopes for the exhibit to be inclusive to all ages and levels of agricultural education.
“We are partnering with various experts to make sure that we can build a wonderful exhibit that would be appropriate for a small child all the way to a seasoned rancher,” Hodges said.
Inclusivity is important at the NRHC. By creating age-friendly exhibits and activities, they are able to broaden demographics and reach a larger audience. Hodges said the NRHC expects a drastic increase in the number of visitors on site when the Ranch Life Learning Center opens.
“It’s the only place in the world you’ll be able to see Hank the Cowdog in a realistic way,” Hodges said.
The exhibit will include topics of cowboys, livestock nutrition, prairie ecology and the basics of ranch life. From wildlife to native plant species, this exhibit will cover a broad spectrum. The NRHC is aiming to spread agricultural awareness while preserving the beloved voice of Hank the Cowdog.
“We’re building something that’s real and telling a real story with the help of a fictional character,” Hodges said.
Within the next two to five years, the Ranch Life Learning Center will be much more than the plans and blueprints on Hodge’s desk.