School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences positively influences teens

Samantha Shirk
October 05, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The novel coronavirus did not stop a 30-year tradition of inspiring rising high school seniors through their participation in the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State.

In the past, high school juniors from across Pennsylvania moved into dorms at Penn State’s University Park campus to take part in the four-week summer program, which enables them to explore careers and majors in the agricultural, environmental and natural resource sciences.

Also known as PSEAS, the program provides daily instruction with College of Agricultural Sciences professors, advisers and current students. In previous years, students attended classes on “Ag Hill,” traveled to labs around State College in one of Penn State’s famous blue buses, toured the animal facilities and visited farms.

Like many events this year, the program leaders needed to make a difficult decision — either cancel the program or host an online version. While announcing the news of acceptance to the 32 participants in March, Jenneth Layaou, who directs the program, asked each student his or her preference.

“We put the decision on the students and said we would offer a virtual program, but we would need more than five students to plan such an extensive program across the breadth of the College of Agricultural Sciences,” said Layaou, who is the college’s director of campus enrollment and retention. “Within hours, we had 17 responses, and by the end of the week, we had 28 students registered for the program.”

With a short turnaround of three months, Layaou communicated with participating faculty and her student staff to plan a condensed offering via Zoom. Classes included virtually exploring animal science facilities, evaluating agricultural and biological engineering technology scenarios, and a new addition, “Spanish for Agriculture.”

Over the 10-day program, classes were added in additional fields of study. They included international agriculture; environmental resource management; agribusiness management; plant sciences; veterinary and biomedical sciences; community, environment and development; and food science.

PSEAS t-shirt

The 2020 Virtual PSEAS T-shirt design featured the symbolic tree roots of the historic program growing through a computer screen. 

IMAGE: Penn State

Emma Barrett, a participant from Pleasant Valley High School in Saylorsburg, said Melanie Miller Foster’s international agriculture class resonated with her the most.

“Dr. Miller Foster talked about urbanization in developing countries, which was very interesting to me,” said Barrett, who wants to pursue a career in food security, public policy and international relations. “She also provided resources to learn more about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.”

Layaou empowered the faculty and staff to help address two challenges of a virtual program: keeping students engaged and helping them feel connected to the college and University while preventing screen fatigue.

To accomplish this, students logged on for six hours with breaks, Monday through Friday, and participated in small group discussions, pre-homework assignments, student panels and “mandatory fun” activities. A virtual scavenger hunt, during which participants had to figure out clues and find items at various University landmarks, helped the students feel connected to the University.

Just as with the in-person program, Layaou did not act alone; she relied on student volunteers to assist with student communication, attendance and social activities.

“I am very appreciative of the support from the College of Agricultural Sciences team and my coordinators and volunteers this year,” Layaou said. “I am quite pleased with interactions — students walked away feeling connected and with information, and we were able to create a virtual community that was similar to what we try to create on campus.”

Participation in the program reinforced Barrett’s professional aspiration to help solve world hunger. “Even though this program was virtual, what I took away was very impactful,” she said. “PSEAS expanded my knowledge of the current world hunger status. I am determined to dissolve the inequalities of having enough food to feed everyone for current and future generations.”

After the program, all scholars received a goodie bag, which contained a program T-shirt, a water bottle and additional promotional items. In the spring of 2021, Layaou hopes to bring the students to Penn State to celebrate.

“Tentatively, we plan to invite the group to our open house in April to recognize their achievements,” she said. “They can explore the college, with tours and sessions on our majors, as they would have if they had been on campus during the program.”

Planning for the PSEAS 2021 program is underway. It will be the 30th year the program has been offered at Penn State, and Layaou hopes to involve alumni from across the years.

Applications open Nov. 1. More information is available online at


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Last Updated October 06, 2020