Growing up a Gator

Although rankings of colleges and universities on every characteristic from academic integrity to costs to partying have become ubiquitous, evaluations of ag ed programs have been rare. In fact, a study in 2009 was the first conducted since the late 1980s.

Ohio State University’s Robert J. Birkenholz and Jon C. Simonsen undertook the task of determining which ag ed programs were most respected by those in the field. In addition, the investigators wanted to pinpoint which characteristics had distinguished those schools as outstanding. The country’s 82 colleges and universities that offer ag ed programs were invited to participate in the survey.

Thad Beshears, front, and Jeffrey Spencer, rear, Wedgworth Leadership Institute participants, visited a Beijing, China, wholesale market as part of a tour while on their international trip to China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.
Photo by Rochelle Strickland, Wedgworth Leadership Institute.

Birkenholz and Simonsen presented their findings at the American Association for Agricultural Education Research Conference in Louisville last May. Survey respondents ranked the top 10 schools they considered most distinguished, and participants were asked not to vote for the university with which they were affiliated. The University of Florida’s (UF) Department of Agricultural Education and Communication was named as the nation’s best, followed by Texas A&M, Ohio State, University of Missouri and Iowa State. Rounding out the top vote-getters were Oklahoma State, North Carolina State, Pennsylvania State, Texas Tech and the University of Arizona.

Participants also selected the top three outstanding characteristics of the programs they admire. Faculty was cited as a key element at each university, and research and graduate programs were noted for four of the top five schools. Several programs distinguished themselves with one unique offering, leading researchers to believe those universities were favored based upon a specific niche curriculum. For example, international emphasis set Iowa State apart, while distance education and technology/innovation were cited at North Carolina State. The leadership program at Texas A&M got a special mention, as did the size of Penn State’s program. The University of Arizona was lauded for its undergraduate studies.

Most of the ag ed and communications programs recognized last year were also highly regarded in the 1980s survey. New to the list are the University of Missouri, North Carolina State University, Texas Tech University and the University of Arizona.

Strengthening the ag ed program at University of Florida

Dr. Ed Osborne, who has chaired the department of agricultural education and communication (www.aec.ifas.ufl.edu) since 1997, says the department has grown tremendously in the last 10 to 15 years. One of 15 departments within the University’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), its mission isn’t to improve cultivar breeding or investigate new pest management strategies, but rather to complement applied agricultural science by “connecting people to agriculture,” in the department chair’s words. In addition to preparing students for careers in ag ed, Osborne’s group works with communications, leadership and public issues. They tackle obstacles such as the disparity between consumer opinions and agricultural realities.

“Our department has long focused on enhancing awareness, knowledge and understanding of agriculture and natural resources and the inherent practices and issues that lie therein,” Osborne adds.

Ed Osborne, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication at the University of Florida.
Photo courtesy of Ed Osborne.

In recent years, UF’s graduate program in ag ed and communications has grown from six on-campus students to 40 this semester. Its Ph.D. program opened in 2000 and is now one of the country’s largest. An additional 27 are enrolled in the E-Learning Institute’s Masters program, which can be completed via Internet without ever setting foot on campus.

The department’s undergraduate program currently has one of its largest student bodies in history with 137. Osborne finds an increase in interest in bridging the gap between technology and human dimensions and in facilitating better understanding between the public and the industry.

“We are on a steady growth curve in most areas of our department,” Osborne says. “It’s due to a great faculty and high-quality students who are excited, along with excellent administrative support.”

Distinguishing the Gator program

Other ag ed academicians ranked UF high for its graduate program, faculty and research.

The graduate program offers four concentrations: education, extension, leadership and communications. A high number of those earning doctoral degrees are now working in university settings; those focusing on leadership may use such skills in direct ways, such as executive positions, or indirectly in teaching or extension climates. Osborne believes that no other distance-learning program matches UF’s, which can be completed in seven semesters on the schedule best suited to an individual student. Although 90 percent of the enrollees are Florida residents, there is no “out-of-state” tuition surcharge for those outside the state.

The University of Florida’s ag ed and communication faculty, staff and students attribute their department’s success to faculty commitment to mentoring.
Photo courtesy of Ed Osborne.

A hard-working faculty that is passionate and striving for excellence is in place in the ag ed department. Student mentoring is a priority.

“This is an innovative and energizing environment,” Osborne says. “Our faculty values team playing to [help all] excel.”

He adds that research is an important part of the professors’ work, but that aspect is balanced between teaching and extension work. “We’re here to contribute to IFAS, our state’s farmers and our discipline by communicating with the stakeholders about their research needs.”

The department’s research efforts are directed at connecting people and agriculture. Its work helps growers better communicate their messages and promote their products through greater understanding of consumers and their behavior. Specific projects also study leadership and change principles as they apply to agriculture.

“Our work with the people connections, public perceptions about the industry and how media messages influence consumers empowers [growers] to advance their industry,” Osborne adds.

Special innovations benefit growers

To better address public perceptions, the university has established a Center for Public Issues in Agriculture, which focuses on research and outreach that enhance farming sustainability. The staff looks at the ways in which people form opinions about controversial scientific issues and how scientists can best communicate their messages publicly.

“We know that if people understand agriculture and technology, they will form more accurate opinions about it,” Osborne says. “How an issue is framed in the media has much to do with the opinions that are formed.”

This type of work helps educate growers about the most effective ways to speak in unbiased terms when issues arise and how to alter inaccurate public opinions.

The Wedgworth Leadership Institute’s mission is to develop leadership skills in those who will be increasingly active in agriculture policy formation. The 22-month program is open to young adults involved in Florida agriculture and related industries. The course is taught through nine three to five-day seminars held in locations throughout Florida, one 10 to 12-day seminar in Washington, D.C., and one 15 to 17-day international seminar in developed and developing countries. The Institute has considerable financial support, reducing students’ costs to a $3,500 donation and all travel expenses.

Through the program, alliances are built across Florida agriculture. At the Institute, relevant issues are studied and an understanding of social, economic and political systems is created. That knowledge empowers future leaders to work within established systems to effect change.

Plans for the future

Osborne’s department isn’t one to rest on its laurels. It self-evaluates continually to ensure students’ needs are met and the academic program is on the cutting edge. Faculty are interested in analyzing course sequencing to achieve the optimal learning atmosphere, and Osborne hopes the e-learning program can be expanded to include the department’s leadership track.

He says a departmental frustration is that the program receives more student applications than it can accept and hopes the faculty of 14 can be expanded to accommodate higher enrollments. His wish list includes an endowment for graduate studies to assist with university and travel-related expenses.

“We are delighted [that our peers recognized our accomplishments],” Osborne says. “Our faculty has a can-do mentality and [our central question is], ‘How can we do better?’”

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.