College of Agricultural Sciences offers look at ag careers for STEM program

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of faculty and staff from the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State provided students at Harrisburg High School's SciTech campus with a comprehensive look at the variety of disciplines that students can pursue in the agricultural sciences.

Students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at SciTech were introduced to faculty members and staff working in plant sciences, food science and entomology. The visits were coordinated by the College of Agricultural Sciences' Office of Multicultural Affairs, led by Patreese Ingram, professor and assistant dean of multicultural affairs.

The idea for the workshop originated at a Penn State Harrisburg workshop, when Ingram met Sunada Roberts, a science teacher at SciTech. In discussing the role of agricultural sciences in the state's STEM programming, the two educators realized that there was an opportunity to collaborate to bring more information about agricultural studies and careers, particularly to an urban school focused on STEM education.

Several times a year, SciTech hosts its Community Partnership Day, during which students give back to their community by doing service projects or learning about topics that could be beneficial to their communities. With Ingram's help, Roberts designed a four-part curriculum titled, "A Community Partnership with Penn State, Main Campus — an Investigation into the Agricultural Sciences."

A group of roughly a dozen students in grades 9-12 received visits from faculty, staff students and Penn State Extension educators who were associated with the agricultural sciences at Penn State. These interactions gave the students a broad overview of research in the agricultural sciences and its many real-world applications, and provided hands-on experiences associated with each topic.

The first Penn State team to visit the campus, in October 2016, consisted of Robert Berghage, associate professor of horticulture, and student-farm intern Carolina Negron. After a discussion of careers in plant science, the students planted microgreens, which grow to harvest in a window farm within just a few weeks. Grown in drip containers, the plants could be watered vertically out of plastic bottles, and student groups made samples and placed them in the third floor window for student body preview and education.

On the next Community Partnership Day, Andy Hirneisen, an extension educator based in Berks County with expertise in food science, and Stacy Reed, a family, food and health extension educator based in Lancaster County, led hands-on activities to make chocolate in several flavors and forms. The class then discussed some of the global impacts of chocolate production and various food science careers. A class trip to Hershey Park was planned to supplement what the students learned in their food science session.

In March of 2017, Saundra Wheeler, a doctoral student in entomology, introduced the SciTech students to her field and explained how scientists combine the study of bugs with what they know about plants. They discussed pollinator decline and how important honeybees are in the global food system. The class then made preliminary plans to create a pollinator garden at the school later that spring.

In May of the same year, the students learned about pollinator gardens and the importance they have on the food system. With the help of Connie Schmotzer, consumer horticulture extension educator and Master Gardener coordinator in York County, students potted pollinator plants to take home and start their own minigardens.

Both Roberts and Ingram agree that the series was beneficial to their programs. The pair is in the process of planning a similar program to allow other Penn State scientists to introduce another group of SciTech students to the many careers and majors in the agricultural sciences.

"I felt it was important to give these students an idea of all that ag sciences can be," Roberts said. "It is important and vital for them to see the real-world applications to these careers and the opportunities these careers present as a global citizen and student. Students, particularly minority students in STEM, need a global perspective to affect change in their world.

"With Dr. Ingram's help to organize and with the support of the people who were able to come talk to our class from the College of Agricultural Sciences, we were able to do that."

Said Ingram, "Students like this class at SciTech one day will inherit responsibility for the food and fiber systems of our state, and even our world. So today, it is our responsibility to make sure that they are aware of the challenges we are facing and the opportunities that are there for them in the agricultural sciences."

Last Updated February 26, 2018