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February 13, 2014 — It has been 20 years since the University of Wyoming’s then-College of Agriculture rolled out a new interdisciplinary undergraduate major in agroecology.
The program combines agronomy and ecology, and focuses on the dynamic picture of today’s agriculture, including plant and crop production, soil science and the link between agriculture and society.
“We were the first land-grant university to institute an agroecology undergraduate major,” says Robin Groose, associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences. “Idaho, Penn State and West Virginia have followed. Florida, LSU, Minnesota and Wisconsin have followed with graduate majors in agroecology.”
Groose estimates 34 of the 50 land-grant universities now have agroecology as a major or minor, or program.
UW’s goal was to graduate independent thinkers who could recognize and solve real problems facing agriculture, and successfully refute what Groose calls bogus challenges.
The then-Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences (PSIS) in 1993 had eight students spread across crop science, soil science and entomology.
“Almost overnight, in 1993, enrollment doubled as we created a single, integrated major in agroecology,” Groose says. “I remember, in the early 1990s, one of my advisees was the only new freshman in PSIS the year he came to Laramie from Lovell. He joked, ‘Gosh, everybody is so nice to me.’"
Agroecology enrollment is now 45. Groose says agroecology continues adapting to agricultural concerns and issues using the combination of the Department of Plant Sciences and Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. Both are in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Groose gives much credit to the program’s required experiential learning, which frequently lays the groundwork for employment after graduation. He says students complete internships during the summer and follow up their hands-on experiences with a written paper and departmental presentation the following semester.
Brian Mealor, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, has overseen student internships for the past two and a half years.
“The internship program is an opportunity to gain experience in their chosen field,” Mealor says. “These experiences can be positive or negative, but the students acquire firsthand insight into the challenges and opportunities associated with agroecology.”
Anne Morabito, a UW agroecology student, analyzes satellite images acquired before and after a wildfire in this 2009 photo. Images were downloaded from the U.S. Geological Survey website. (Steve Miller Photo)