Gary Olsen, Agriscience Teacher of the Year

Gary Olsen, Montana Agriscience Teacher of the Year

Agriculture and education are Gary Olsen’s passions. They have kept him occupied and committed for more than forty years. His involvement and enthusiasm will certainly continue long past his anticipated retirement from high school teaching next year. Year-round, Olsen can be found working and learning so he can be a better ag teacher.

The writer has had the refreshing opportunity to sit through one of Olsen’s Ag Ed classes and, on many occasions, to see him at work in the school shop with his young students. Olsen teaches and guides and leads all at the same time incorporating as much real life activity as possible.

STUDENT is a big word for Gary. Simply the way he pronounces the word hints at the importance of students to him, how he values good teaching, and his own hands-on way approach to education.

Mr. Olsen is obviously a constant learner and teacher. Each summer, Olsen is employed 30 days for the school district on High School Rodeo and Youth Fair projects. The rest of the summer when not going to school, he works on Weed Management.

But every summer, he goes away to school to learn and have more to teach when he returns. This past summer, Gary and wife Marilyn took two weeks off for school and travel between Montana and Illinois. Gary attended a week-long program in Alternative Energy at the University of Illinois campus in Urbana. And, was he impressed. The Urbana school owns over 800 patents for inventions ranging from the MRI to the Internet. When Olsen goes to summer school, he says, “I pretend I know nothing and I always learn a lot.”

The Faculty Development Program in which he has participated several times over recent years on campuses from California to Ohio is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and called AgrowKnowledge. This year’s Alternative/Renewable Energy program involved Biofuels, Geothermal, Solar, Wind and Hydrogen. One project required students to fly kites and learn how elevations, buildings, and tree lines effect wind flow. Olsen and his group visited the 260 wind towers at an energy generating site twenty miles from Urbana. They also toured an ethanol production plant.

Gary has had a long, varied and always busy career in agricultural education and business in Harlowton. In the 1960s, he helped introduce European cattle breeds into Montana. Gary was a unit manager for Montana Breeders from 1965 to 1990 and inseminated over 22,000 cows. Olsen worked seven days a week at the job even while he was teaching and coaching at Harlowton High School. (Somehow, Mr. Olsen found time to be a football coach for 25 years. He was head coach for several years.) Gary made his circuit every morning during the spring starting at 3:00 am and made it to school in time for class. In the summer, Olsen extended his work to counties in “big beautiful Eastern Montana. I quit when I lost my crew. When my family left home.”

In the early 90s, Olsen took two summers to work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, helping develop a 12-unit curriculum in Applied Biology and Chemistry. Gary was the Ag Science expert in the group which produced the program for the Center for Occupational Research and Development. “We were studying DNA in the 90s. This was all hands-on stuff. It was good material, but unfortunately never caught on.”

For the last ten years, Gary has been involved in GPS/GIS – Global Positioning Systems/Global Information Systems. Twenty four satellites strategically placed in stationary orbit around the globe use triangulation to pinpoint locations on the planet. Information can be readily attached to specific sites using computers. And, this is what Olsen has been doing in recent years in his capacity as Weed Coordinator for the Wheatland County Weed Board. (Gary has been on the Weed Board since coming to Harlowton.)

Last year, Katie Butts helped him in initial efforts map the county’s weeds. This year, Sue Ashley helped fulfill a grant from the Montana Noxious Weed Trust Fund for a plant and weed collection which will go out to all extension agents and weed coordinators in Montana. Appointed by the Governor, Olsen is also on the Advisory Council for the Weed Trust Fund Board, now for the third year. “When writing for grants,” Olsen smiles and comments, “It helps.”

Olsen is looking for a bright and motivated high school to continue the weed mapping program next summer. Mapping involves three steps: 1) using present maps of ranch and farm properties, 2) locating weeds, and 3) spraying. All aspects of the program are input into computers. Weed location and spraying are input using GPS/GIS software. Some spraying teams now have triggers to their devices connected to GPS to instantly transmit information into receiving computer systems.

Thanks to another $18,000 Weed Grant, 900 goats are eating leafy spurge on C Bar J Ranch. They are tended by couple from Wyoming.

During the school year, Mr. Olsen directs Agricultural Education at Harlowton High School for freshman to senior years with Ag I - Plant Science, Mechanics, FFA; Ag II - Animal Science, Small Engines, Welding, FFA; Ag III - Electricity, Carpentry, Plumbing, Surveying, Hydraulics, FFA; Ag IV - GPS, GIS, Alternative Energy, FFA. Ag Ed (formerly VoAg) involves science and technology - the shop/vocational part. His students get vocational - and science - credits in their freshman and sophomore years.

FFA is part of every year of Agricultural Education, and an important one. It is the leadership portion. FFA teaches students to work together. Public speaking is a major emphasis in FFA as is learning at distant venues. “We do a lot of traveling. I try to get kids out to a lot of different parts of the country. That’s why we do concessions.”

 Last year, 28 high school students were in FFA. “The program gives students another opportunity and an alternative to sports and academics.”

By the way, the Harlowton FFA program was responsible for designing and building the six miniature wind towers which sprang up around town in conjunction with the Montana Festival of the Wind. “This was a good project for the students. They got to produce something that they and the community could see put to use.”

Olsen explains that the Smith Hughes Act of 1928 provided for agricultural education in high schools and created the Future Farmers of America (now just FFA). Seventy eight schools have agricultural education programs in Montana. Harlowton High was a charter member and began its program in 1930.

Vocational-Agricultural education at HHS includes Ag Ed and FFA, BPA (Business Professionals of America), and FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America). These programs are supported annually by $6,000 federal money, $5,000 state, and School District 16 ($100,000 salaries, $15,000 insurance, and $12,000 expenses).

Gary has been involved with FFA since high school in Fairfield (east of Great Falls). He was raised on a dairy farm and “learned a work ethic. Milking cows every morning and after school.” He lived seven miles from town and rode the school bus.

Mr. Olsen graduated from Bozeman in 1964. “When I graduated from college, I knew nothing and still don’t know very much. That’s why I have to go to school every year.”

 Gary will celebrate his 65th birthday on September 27. “Mrs. Olsen says we should look at retirement. And, we are. It’s a new time in my life and in our lives.” The Olsens have been married for ten years. Marilyn works as an aide at Hillcrest School. Both are active in the American Lutheran Church. Marilyn is church treasurer and records director for the Thrivent Musselshell Chapter.

What if Gary Olsen really retires from teaching? But, it might be ten years. “No. It will be at the end of this school year. I’d like to move into some part of the Department of Agriculture. My bag has always been students, but my topic is agriculture. I am looking at what people are doing in the field.”

It may be his last year at HHS, but Olsen says, “I don’t want to be a lame duck.” He continues on as Harlowton Education Association president, which position he has held off and on for years. In this job, Olsen helps negotiate teachers salaries and works on staff problems.

While his calendar is not fully scheduled, some events and learning opportunities for the 2007-08 school year are already settled. FFA will be going to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver in January. “We got a new computerized plasma cutter. We will design and produce intricate patterns in steel. I will have to learn along with the kids. The machine is in parts right now waiting to be put together.”.

 What has been Olsen’s biggest challenge in 40 years? “Keeping a work ethic amongst the young people. Showing them the importance of being on time and accepting responsibility. This is important in the whole community as well.”

What has been most enjoyable? “I really enjoy it when former students walk through the door and chuckle about things that happened in the shop here years ago. It’s a sign of thanks and respect. A real compliment. That to me is great.”

Gary Olsen’s former students include Jeff Holmes, Shelia Daum, and Kevin Fox who teach Ag Ed in Ryegate, Lavina, and Livingston. This seems to be a substantial tribute in itself to a man who is still learning to teach agriculture.