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UM Ag College Changes With The Times

May 13, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Ag education has changed since the 20th century ended, and as Minnesota's population and rural demographics have evolved, the University of Minnesota has changed with the times.
The U's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences has taken steps, not only to adapt its subject matter to the changing needs of its students, but to adapt how it teaches those subjects as well.

This is a change made difficult by underfunding from the legislature. CFANS has seen a 20 percent decrease in the number of tenure-track professors since 2003, said Jay Bell, CFANS associate dean for academic programs and faculty affairs. He added that budget cuts could lead to 30 to 40 fewer tenure-track and tenured professors over the next several years.

The college needs those professors as the demographic changes in Minnesota continue to be staggering. Rural Minnesota - counties outside the seven-county metropolitan area - will see very slow growth through 2035, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. The population will also age, leaving fewer farmers to take care of the land.

While this means the population base that has traditionally fueled the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences is dwindling, it doesn't mean interest in such a degree has changed. It has simply splintered.

"National surveys show today's college students say they're interested in issues like climate change, clean water and healthy living - trends which mirror the desires of students at the U. The U still teaches soil scientists, but what many of our students do with that knowledge has changed," Bell said.

In 1978, most students were enrolled in a traditional Production Agriculture program that teaches students how to maximize their animal and plant output. Today, that number is a fraction of the total, with more students demanding degrees in areas such as Natural Resources, in which students examine the management of forests, waterways, wild animals and fisheries; Environmental Science, which looks at policy management in relationship to environmental resources; and Food Science and Nutrition, which creates new food products and enhances existing products. Pre-veterinary Science was not a degree in 1978, but now accounts for almost 20 percent of all students in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

In addition to keeping up with a changing student body, the U has had to keep up with changing students as well. The freshmen who start classes this fall not only look different, they learn differently. These are people who have never known a world without the Internet and text-messaging. They adapt quickly to new technologies and expect instruction to be fast-moving and interesting as well as applicable to real problems.

The University of Minnesota "needs to make changes, both to reflect the changes in demographics among our students and stakeholders but also to take advantage of the current best-practices in teaching and learning," Bell said.

CFANS Majors, 1978-2007CFANS has studied the issue for several years and has joined other ag universities and the National Academy of Sciences to help modernize how it approached ag education. Among many changes, the U will:

  • Broaden treatment of agriculture in the overall curriculum so topics are found in disciplines throughout the campus;
  • Include training in skills such as communication, teamwork and management, as well as increase participation in outreach and extension activities;
  • Partner with other agriculture institutions to better support the needs of students;
  • Increase awareness of agriculture's role in addressing major societal problems.

"Agriculture and the environment - our food, water, air and land - are broad, global issues that cross a variety of disciplines," Bell said. "It's important that our graduates have the kind of experiences that will help guide them as they enter the workforce or go on to further study in specific disciplines."

Minnesota is one of the nation's top ag producers and it boasts some of the best ag researchers and research facilities in the world. Located on the St. Paul campus, the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences is a gem of a facility that routinely produces world-caliber researchers, managers and producers.

The U has kept its side of the bargain by remaining nimble amidst changing student demands for agricultural education and rapidly evolving ag and food production industries. With Minnesota's economy stagnating, agriculture and food processing are critical, financially stabilizing sectors. Smart investments in education, specifically  in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, create much-needed prosperity.  Minnesota needs more, not less, opportunity.


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