Lincoln, Neb.—A robust core curriculum, enhanced by flexible customization of academic emphasis areas, is producing positive results at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. The approach is enabling strong interest in one of UNL’s oldest areas of study, agronomy, while helping the department meet the range of student academic needs.
Charlotte Brockman, a sophomore from Gooding, Idaho, explains the benefits. Her interest is in international development, with a goal to work overseas in small farms and specialty crop development. The agronomy major at UNL works well for her, she says, because the approach “allows me to get the core curriculum I need to communicate with scientists and agronomists from all over the world.”
The department’s agronomy major provides a second benefit, Brockman says, because its academic customization “lets me expand and tie in my special interests, such as specialty crops and soils, and the international trade piece I wasn’t able to include in other degree plans.”
That flexibility, in which students are in large measure “co-creators” of their areas of emphasis, is a key part of the department’s work to facilitate student success, says Martha Mamo, the department’s head and the John E. Weaver Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture.
The department’s faculty members have “an esprit de corps in the teaching and learning space,” she says. Faculty regularly analyze the best methods for pedagogy and support for students, encouraging critical thinking skills. “There is a shared commitment,” Mamo says, “so that students are successful in their journey.”
Brockman notes that Agronomy and Horticulture stands out for its openness in welcoming students from diverse backgrounds, including students who don’t have an ag background. “UNL challenges students to think outside the box and work with others,” she says. That approach “has allowed me to grow my ability to communicate interculturally.”
Pursuing studies in Agronomy and Horticulture isn’t just for students from rural backgrounds, says sophomore Bryce Wemhoff, a Lincoln native majoring in agronomy with horticulture and ag business minors. A graduate of Pius X High School, he developed an interest in plants while working in a tree nursery.
“I started off as a horticulture major and switched to agronomy,” he says, “from the perspective of wanting to more directly see how I can help farmers in Nebraska produce higher yield for their acre and at a cost that is minimal for them while also incorporating topics such as water health and soil health.”
For the upcoming 2023-24 catalog, the department offers three undergraduate degrees: Agronomy; Plant and Landscape Systems; and Plant Biology. Each major features a common core and provides flexibility to meet students’ individual academic needs.
Plant and Landscape systems majors can choose one of three academic options: Horticulture; Landscape Design and Management; and Turfgrass Science and Management. Plant Biology majors can focus on various levels of study: Molecular; Cellular and organismal; Whole plant/applied physiological; and Ecological.
John Tines, a junior turf management major from Lincoln, notes the value from the department’s introductory courses. A key example is Soils 153, an introduction to soil studies he took as a freshman. “I learned a ton from that,” he says. “I’m still applying that knowledge when I’m working on golf courses” and studying soil conditions. He has been a teaching assistant for the course.
In addition, his turf-focused classes have all “been very helpful,” he says. Botany was challenging, but it’s proved “really helpful.” It was valuable “to learn a lot about how plants function and why plants are adapted the way they are.” Similarly, in his golf course work he continues to use the knowledge he gained from the tree and shrub identification class taught by Kim Todd, a professor of horticulture. The information on plant characteristics and management has proved “super-helpful.”
Through a range of such experiences and supports, the department provides a strong foundation for students, Mamo says. “Once they graduate,” she says, “that foundation allows them to evolve and be flexible.”
Brockman credits that departmental approach as a major help to her. The opportunities and supports for students have “connected dots that I wouldn’t have been able to connect on my own,” she says.
The department “has been very open to the idea of a broader education,” Brockman says. “That’s really important for the future.”