By Echo Martin
It’s not a secret that the horticultural industry has been struggling to find the next generation of plant professionals. In 2015 the USDA estimated that only 61% of high-skilled job openings in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, and environment fields in the United States would be filled. Part of the problem faculty members at the U of M identified to explain this trend was an issue of perception about what studying horticulture entailed and the job prospects after graduation. To address this problem, the decision was made in 2013 to restructure curriculum from two majors—applied plant sciences and horticulture—into a single major called plant science, and add an additional food systems major. All students in the plant science major have a broad core curriculum that gives them solid training in all aspects of plant science—they learn about general plant biology, plant production, basic soil science, plant-insect interactions, and more. “That interdisciplinarity and foundation of plant science will help students think more broadly about what they do and carry those principles from one area of horticulture to another,” says major coordinator Eric Watkins. This makes students better rounded and offers them flexibility in their career choice.
As students progress in their college career, they begin to take more focused courses according to their interests. “Advanced coursework hasn’t changed,” says Watkins. “Students work with a faculty member to identify the upper level courses that make sense for them and their career goals. This gives them greater flexibility and promotes on-time graduation.” For example, a student who is interested in plant breeding can choose to take courses like AGRO 3660: Plant Genetic Resources and HORT 4071W: Applications of Biotechnology to Plant Improvement.
Students have noticed the benefits of this change as well. One student commented in an anonymous survey completed shortly before graduation, “I am extremely satisfied with the strength of the coursework in the plant breeding track. When I visit plant breeders I can have intelligent conversations with them about their work, and I know a lot about the profession.” Other students have praised the ability of the major to tailor the curriculum to their interests, while others have appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of their education. And most importantly, the development of the Plant Science major has led to an increase in enrollment and higher degree satisfaction—which means more students educated for the jobs employers desperately need highly skilled employees to fill.