School for Excellence in the Ag Sciences inspires, motivates teens

September 07, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up in an urban area near Pittsburgh, Martha Pangburn had few interactions with those working in agriculture.

"There aren't many farms where I live, so I never thought much about agriculture or farming," said the Quaker Valley High School senior. "Actually, I believed stereotypes like it's a simple, not-very-exciting way of life."

Her interest in nutrition and food science as a college major and future career led her to take part in the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State this summer, where she gained a new perspective and admiration for agriculture.

"This school defied the stereotypes and opened my eyes," she said. "I never realized the different aspects of agriculture, how much it affects our lives, and the level of science, research and technology that is involved."

Pangburn was one of 34 students who were enlightened about agriculture during the four-week residential program, which provides academically talented rising high school seniors an opportunity to explore the agricultural and natural-resource sciences and life on a college campus.

Participants also are encouraged to look beyond borders and come up with solutions to global problems such as malnutrition, social injustice and water scarcity, according to Jenneth Layaou, director of campus enrollment and retention for Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, who oversees the program.

"Since we began hosting this program in 1986, it never fails to amaze me how much the students evolve as students and scientists during the few weeks they are with us," she said. "Even more incredible is how these students make their mark on the world. Like those before them, this year's students are destined to make important contributions to society." 

During their time on campus, students took part in classes, hands-on activities and service projects led by faculty and staff. Topics included global agriculture, environmental and natural-resource systems, animal science, food science, and plants and people.

Many times the lessons extended beyond the walls of a classroom. For example, the students tracked wildlife using radio telemetry and studied plants during visits to The Arboretum at Penn State; they learned about agriculture then and now at the Pasto Agricultural Museum; and they went mushroom hunting at the University's Mushroom Research Center.

They also toured Penn State's Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs, in Ferguson Township, Centre County, where they gained valuable insights into research involving cover crops, weed management, soil fertility, crop variety trials, pest-management strategies and plant disease, among other topics.

A trip to Stone Valley Recreation Center in Huntingdon County to study water quality, stream structure and amphibians was a highlight for Ellone Falvo of Hickory High School in Mercer County, who wants to study plant science or forest ecosystem science at Penn State.

Second on her list was a presentation about genetically modified organisms.

"I always thought that GMOs were bad because of food labels that say 'GMO-Free,'" she said. "But I learned that they aren't bad and a lot of it is crossbreeding plants to grow better and stronger plants."

Her father, Richard, followed the school's Facebook page and enjoyed seeing how much fun his daughter was having.

"It was a good experience for her, being on campus and learning what agriculture has to offer," he said. "Plus, it helped her become more independent."

2018 Pennsylvania School for Excellence speakers

The Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State received a visit from special guests from the state, including Physician General Rachel Levine, Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell, and Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.

IMAGE: Penn State

A significant part of the curriculum for the students involved conducting research on a global problem such as malnutrition, starvation or lack of clean water, and then writing an essay about their findings and ideas for solutions.

A panel of judges reviewed the papers and selected five to represent Pennsylvania at the three-day Global Youth Institute, set for October in Des Moines, Iowa, and hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. Those students are Pangburn, Emma Steely, Irene Ford, Jacob Turko and Saikrishna Manojkumar. Alternates are Connie Jiang, Ellen Poplavska, Samantha Martin, Isabella Swartz and Zoe Prats.

Steely, of Catawissa, whose essay detailed water shortages in Libya, said learning about global problems has strengthened her "sense of purpose and interest in helping others." She will work toward that goal by studying international development and agriculture.

Participating in the program helped many decide if a career in agricultural sciences was a good fit. For instance, Robert Kisner IV, of Athens, who was leaning toward computer science, is now much more interested in wildlife and fisheries science.

He added that the experience also got him out of his "comfort zone" when meeting new people, and he enjoyed team-building exercises, bowling and ice-skating parties. Those friendships — and connections with faculty and staff — will be important for all, but especially for future Nittany Lions.

"About 64 percent of participants from the past three years attend Penn State, including 80 percent of the 2016 class who started this past fall," Layaou said. "The program does not end with admittance to Penn State — we continue to support this special group throughout their entire academic journey."

To learn more, visit the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences online at, or like the Facebook page, Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Ag Sciences.

  • 2018 School for Excellence Eco tour

    During a ecosystems management tour at the Stone Valley Recreation Center, the scholars tested water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and recorded species of plants, insects and amphibians found.

    IMAGE: Mitchell Valentin

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Last Updated September 07, 2018