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Agriculture: Putting the Steam in STEM Degrees at US Universities

December 1, 2016

When it comes to gauging the coolness of majoring in science, technology, engineering, or math — commonly referred to as the STEM disciplines — the stereotypes tend to be quite unflattering. Students who spend days on end in a lab hunched over their equipment, hours at the computer inputting field research data, or countless late nights refining their latest hardware invention have faced some tough nicknames in the past.

However, recent enrollment data from universities show a clear increase in STEM studies which suggests that the tides may be turning in their favor. In a few decades, the nerds may be the ones who are ruling the school.

Without a doubt, the number of students embarking on STEM degrees and educational courses is on an upward trajectory. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of students graduating with STEM degrees increased 36 percent according to the National Science Foundation. Even more impressive, the number of female STEM grads increased 40 percent, with women comprising over half of the undergraduate students in each year.

And the job market is ready to receive this new bumper crop of graduates. According to one report, the number of new jobs requiring a STEM background will grow 17% by 2024. Non-STEM jobs are projected to grow only 12% by comparison. It also explains the growing number of resources designed to help parents push their kids towards a STEM-focused curriculum.

There is another letter that probably deserves a place in the infamous STEM acronym, however: A.

According to a range of universities, agriculture — ag technology in particular — is becoming one of the biggest components of STEM-focused departments and disciplines. Furthermore, at many universities, agriculture is putting the steam in STEM.

Why ag should be part of STEM

“Agriculture definitely is in the STEM paradigm,” David Acker and Kevin Kimle, both prominent administrative and faculty members at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, tell AgFunderNews in an email.

Penn State’s Tracy Hoover, associate dean for Undergraduate Education, and Jean Lonie director of Student Recruitment and Activities agree: “In some ways, agriculture is an umbrella that all the STEM fields fall under. The study of agriculture, food, and natural resources involves biology and genetics, engineering, physics, chemistry, math, geology/hydrology, and other scientific fields.”

The duo also points out that degrees involving agriculture or natural resources are in the top five for beginning salaries and career earnings, right next to other STEM degrees like engineering and computer science.

According to Dr. Neil Knobloch, associate professor and Chair of the Purdue Agriculture PK-12 Council, agriculture plays a critical part in helping students in STEM disciplines integrate the skills and material that they are learning, both regarding content and context.

“Twenty-seven percent of the careers in agriculture, food and natural resources are STEM,” he says. “There are excellent careers in agriculture, food and natural resources that will require future leaders and professionals who can effectively execute 21st-century skills.”

To that end, Purdue launched an integrated STEM Education Initiative six years ago. It also recently received a grant to provide professional development for agriculture and STEM high school teachers in northwest Indiana

Ensuring we have the best and brightest working on a secure future food system is a priority for the federal government, as well. The USDA recently announced that it is increasing its support for expanding and diversifying the country’s ag industry workforce. As part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Rural Council Initiative, certain federal agencies will partner with private sector stakeholders to meet the growing demand for skilled agricultural labor.

“The face of American agriculture is changing,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press release about the new effort. “Nearly 10% of US jobs are related to agriculture and the increasingly complex nature of production requires more training and education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields—to stay competitive and meet the needs of a growing world for food, fuel and fiber.”

The Ag Secretary also quoted a USDA report concluding that over 22k jobs in agriculture-related fields may go unfilled every year through at least 2020. Although this paints a bleak picture, many prominent US universities known for their agriculture focus have already made efforts to bridge the gap.

Technology’s growing role

As you might expect, universities have updated their curricula to recognize the increasing importance and role of technology across disciplines.

“Agricultural education at Penn State has evolved to reflect emerging technology on multiple levels. First, we now offer majors that were not offered 10 years ago in response to scientific advances, the needs of industry and the demands for finding solutions to complex global issues and challenges,” says Penn State’s Hoover and Lonie.

In California’s fertile valley, Fresno State’s chair of the Department of Industrial Technology Athanasios Alexandrou, reports a similar experience, particularly for the food and agriculture industry.

“The agriculture curriculum at Fresno State over the last 10 years has added classes that relate to leadership, innovation, green technology and logistics (biofuels, fleet and shop management), food safety (from field to table) and also classes that respond to the technological challenges of modern agriculture such as automation and water technology classes.”

Elsewhere, new degrees focusing on precision agriculture and soil spectrometry are cropping up, including well-known universities and community colleges alike. For these new agtech-focused degrees to be successful, however, we will need to ensure that there are enough motivated students to fill the lecture halls.

“Human talent is the key driver of the future of agriculture,” write Acker and Kimle at Iowa State. “The imaginations of graduates of agriculture and life sciences programs will result in the innovations, inventions, and improvements that will mark an agriculture and food system that does more with less and feeds people better.”

Who is studying agtech?

Getting more students involved in pursuing an agriculture education may not be a totally insurmountable goal. Iowa State, for example, is already reporting record-breaking enrollments.

“For the past five years, our college has had record-breaking enrollments, which speaks to the strong interests in exploring STEM fields in agriculture to address the national and global challenges we’re facing,” report Acker and Kimle. “The largest major currently in our college is animal science, with more than 1,100 undergraduates. Animal science majors are required to take coursework that includes mathematics, statistics, chemistry, biology, microbiology and genetics.”

In addition to offering courses on interpreting large-scale data sets for decision support and biotechnology for improving plant and animal genetics, Iowa State also offers an entrepreneurship in agriculture course.

“It has resulted in several student startup companies on the cutting edge of agriculture technology, including AccuGrain, ScoutPro, Agriculture Concepts, and Terva.”

Over at Penn State, the increasing interest among consumers in non-conventional foods creates additional opportunities for students looking to apply their STEM degree to our food system. A growing curiosity regarding organic agriculture and local food as well as invasive species are some examples they provide.

The effort to put more steam in STEM can be seen beyond the US’ borders. So-called EdTech startups are finding fun ways to get kids involved in STEAM around the globe. Level Up Village is a platform that pairs K-9 students in the US with kids in developing countries. The teams then embark on investigative research projects together, like creating a website that discusses climate change. The teams communicate with one another through LUV’s own platform.

With all the new resources available to STEM students and the exciting new tech-focused opportunities in the food and agriculture sectors, joining a math club or participating in the school science fair suddenly doesn’t seem so nerdy.

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