Development of an Interdisciplinary Agroecology Major with Input from Surveys of Students, Graduates, and Employers

Article excerpt


In 1996 a questionnaire was distributed to Agronomy alumni and employers to evaluate the undergraduate Agronomy major. In response to survey results and environmental impacts of agriculture, an interdisciplinary major was developed by faculty from the departments of Agronomy, Entomology, Horticulture, and Plant Pathology. The new Agroecology major emphasizes cropping systems and pest management with a systems perspective. Core courses are team taught by faculty from more than one department, and are designed to enhance students' communication skills and teamwork. Two internships are required. Five years after the Agroecology major began, a questionnaire was distributed to Agroecology students and graduates to evaluate the major. Students were attracted to the agricultural, ecological, and science-based systems emphasis. They valued hands-on applied agricultural science courses, advanced technical coursework in multiple disciplines, and most described the internships as very educational. Course requirements that were not overly prescriptive allowed for diverse student interests. An administrative and academic paradigm shift was necessary for faculty and administrators from independent departments. Collaboration and administrative leadership was needed to: (1) improve coordination of course curriculum and schedules, (2) inform students about courses, requirements, and new courses, and (3) inform potential employers and students about the Agroecology major.


Since the 1970s, scientists and the public have become more aware of the need to understand and address the ecology and environmental consequences of agricultural practices (Carson, 1962; Georghiou, 1986; NRC, 1989; Tilman et al., 2002). The value of considering the scientific, social, and economic aspects of science, agriculture, and engineering, has also been recognized by educators from many disciplines (Barbarick, 1992; Grabau and Graveel, 1995; Barrett and Skelton, 2002; Rarsten and O'Connor, 2002). In 1995, Grabau and Graveel summarized how many Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture were broadening their research and education activities to appeal to concerns of a larger group of students and society, rather than lose public and financial support. Examples included addressing the needs of new clientele, including environmental issues in research agendas, and developing new curriculum. To communicate to a larger audience, many Agronomy departments changed their department name to Plant, or Crop and Soil Sciences (Raun et al., 1998), and the name of their undergraduate Soil Science major to Environmental Soil Science (Pierzynski and Thien; 1997).

Barrett and Skelton (2002, p. 335) argued that academic institutions "have failed to promote and establish mechanisms or structures to administer... interdisciplinary fields of study. " They suggested an undergraduate degree that would include two years of liberal arts, two years of science and a one year internship. The internship would provide an opportunity for students to learn about the challenges in agroecology that require an interdisciplinary perspective, and both basic and applied science. Cessna (1977) surveyed students in College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University who had completed internships; and the majority of the students described their internships as beneficial because they gained practical knowledge, exposure to professionals, and an opportunity to mature and develop self-confidence.

In 1996, the faculty in the Agronomy Department at Penn State University recognized that enrollment was declining. To identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Agronomy major, a questionnaire was distributed to Agronomy employers and alumni. Survey results were used to help design a new interdisciplinary undergraduate major in Agroecology to better address the agricultural sector needs and student interests, and environmental issues. Five years after the initiation of the Agroecology (AGECO) major, a second questionnaire was distributed to all graduates and enrolled students of the AGECO major to monitor students' experiences, and the successes and weaknesses of the new interdisciplinary major. …