March 16, 2004
SIUC Country Column: Ag program re-tooled to better meet needs of students, industry
A revamped agriculture program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale aims to put its graduates at the top of the food chain.
"Food and biological processing is a $23 billion dollar-a-year industry in Illinois, where agricultural commodity production is around $9 billion," said agricultural systems professor W. David Shoup.
"What we want to do is to prepare our students to participate in that and to position our department as the best place for the industry to select new employees."
To make it happen, Shoup and colleagues Tony V. Harrison, Richard W. Steffen and Dennis Watson began two years ago to take a hard look at what they taught under the heading of "general agriculture." The plan that emerged cut a few courses, merged others and added some new ones.
"What we have now complements what we were already doing - it just opens some new doors for the students," Harrison said.
Noted Watson, "The industry is looking for graduates coming out of programs like ours to have more business management. ADM, for example, wants employees to have an accounting course. We feel that having some business and technology management knowledge will help our students advance up the career ladder."
The new "agricultural systems" component of what had been the Department of Plant, Soil and General Agriculture retains its education and production coursework, but major tweaking has turned general agriculture into what Steffen described as a "unique" specialization.
"When we don't have exactly what they're looking for, we can tailor a program to fit their needs," he said. "For example, a student interested in wildlife management could take general courses with us and then enroll in wildlife courses in another college on campus."
The unit's former agricultural systems and mechanization specialization has undergone the greatest change. Now called agricultural systems technology, it includes coursework in such topics as manufacturing accounting, process scheduling, automation, personnel management, technical processes and informatics (the use of computer and statistical techniques to manage information).
Faculty members plan to seek accreditation for the agricultural system technology specialization from the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, an international educational and scientific organization whose 9,000 members work in agriculture, biology and food-related industries.
Graduating from an accredited program will give our students a little more 'pop' when they're competing for jobs," Shoup said.
And competing for jobs is what the change is all about.
"A very high percentage of people in this curriculum used to want to go back to the farm, but the ones who are now coming to us don't all expect to go back - in fact, three-quarters of my particular class are looking to go somewhere else," he said.
"We have to provide a curriculum that lets them chisel their way in. All of the changes were made based on what we thought students need to know when they come out of here."
In keeping with a national standings goal set by Southern@150, the University's blueprint for what it should be by its 150th anniversary in 2019, faculty members also plan on making their program No. 1 in the nation.
"What's exciting about this is that I think we have a good shot at it - I think we're already in the top 10," Shoup said.
"The whole thing centers on making progress on our facilities (much of the program is now housed in World War II-era Quonset huts and barracks). We're trying to teach a 22nd-century curriculum in 19th-century facilities. Since improvements are hard to do when money's short, we have gone out and brought in some money ourselves, but facilities are still a limiting factor for us."
It takes a little money up front to bring in more money later, Harrison noted.
"When we have potential major contributors, they're not impressed by a Quonset hut," he said.
Upgraded facilities also would help the program attract a broader range of graduate students.
"Students coming from an agricultural background accept what we have and work with it, but students coming from a scientific background are used to nicer accommodations," Watson said.
"We hire a lot of students for our research program, and we want to give them a chance to see the latest technology in action."
Shoup is optimistic that money for the improvements will come.
The best justification for investing in new facilities? There are 52,000 jobs out there," he said.
"Every student coming through here has a place to interview. In a time when all the headlines talk about job loss, this field has no shortage of jobs. And if students are interested in going to work in this industry, we can guide them there."
For a more detailed look at the program and what it has to offer, visit its Web site at http://agsystems.siu.edu/. Faculty members also can answer questions by e-mail. Query Shoup at email@example.com, Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org, Steffen at email@example.com and Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org.