College of Ag Sciences courses aim to broaden cultural understanding

March 29, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Faculty in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences continue to develop novel courses designed to increase cultural awareness and knowledge of food systems here in central Pennsylvania and throughout the world. Two of these courses will be offered in the fall 2021 semester.

“Community, Environment and Development 497: Community-Engaged Learning with Pennsylvania Farmworkers” provides students with the opportunity to learn firsthand about immigration, local agriculture and labor issues through a language partnership with Spanish-speaking immigrant farmworkers on local dairy farms.

The two-credit course was piloted in the 2018 and 2019 fall semesters. Due to enthusiastic responses from participating students and farmworkers, the college will offer it again, noted Kathleen Sexsmith, assistant professor of rural sociology. She teaches the class with Melanie Miller Foster, assistant professor of international agriculture, and Adrian Barragan, assistant research professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences.

Students have participated from programs across the University to learn or hone Spanish skills, become more engaged with the rural communities surrounding State College, and develop greater awareness of the transnational dimensions of the local food system.

Every week, students will visit immigrant farmworkers to provide tailored English-language tutoring that contributes to better communication in their personal lives and on the farm. The course has been adapted to meet COVID-safety protocols by arranging for a combination of in-person and virtual meetings with farmworkers.

These visits are complemented by readings and classroom discussions on immigration policy, immigrant social integration, labor issues in agriculture and the economic crisis in the U.S. dairy industry.

Students receive training and preparation for teaching English as a Second Language to farmworkers with the assistance of Elizabeth Smolcic, teaching professor in the College of Education, who also is coordinator of the Teaching ESL certificate program with an Ecuador immersion experience.

“Students who participate in this class have come away with an improved understanding of the immigration system and how it shapes the lives of immigrant workers who put food on our table,” said Sexsmith.

Barragan added that because almost 50% of agricultural workers are foreign-born — and for 80% of them their native language is Spanish — this class would be highly beneficial for animal science and veterinary students who are pursuing a career in large animal management or health, such as farm manager or veterinarian.

The course is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays in the fall 2021 semester. Spanish language skills are not required to participate. Interested students can learn more and apply online or can contact Sexsmith at, Miller Foster at or Barragan at for more information.

“International Agriculture 300: Agricultural Production and Farming Systems in the Tropics,” scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the fall, will explore tropical food systems and farming systems around the world. The three-credit course, which fulfills a study abroad requirement for the international agriculture minor, includes virtual interaction with students and faculty from the University of Tennessee.

The curriculum also includes a tentative visit over winter break to Cultivating Abundance, of North Fort Myers, Florida, a nonprofit organization that addresses food insecurity and other livelihood challenges among low income, migrant farmworkers, and an optional postclass trip to ECHO, also of North Fort Myers, Florida, an organization that teaches small-scale, sustainable farming.

These trips will enable students to see many tropical crops and study innovations for smallholder farmers in other ecoregions of the tropics, noted Ketja Lingenfelter, assistant director for student global engagement in the college.

“This course is a great example of global education that is not limited to studying abroad,” she said. “Students will gain global understanding and skills and learn about the variety of cultures and food systems in the United States and beyond.”

Leading the course will be Sjoerd Duiker, professor of soil management and applied soil physics, Rick Bates, professor of horticulture, and former Penn State faculty member Tom Gill, associate professor and chair of the Smith Center for International Sustainable Agriculture, University of Tennessee.

Students can register in LionPATH or contact Duiker at or Bates at for more details.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021