Texas A&M soil and crop sciences department reworks curriculum

Emphasis placed on water and environmental issues

COLLEGE STATION – The curriculum of the Texas A&M University department of soil and crop sciences is about to change with the times – more emphasis will be placed on water and environmental issues, said Dr. Jim Heilman.

Heilman is a professor of environmental physics who was tapped to chair the curriculum committee. The committee’s three-year review and assessment process has resulted with changes that will be implemented this fall, as well as others that will go before the Board of Regents and the Texas Higher Education Board for approval.

While the department’s curriculum has had periodic reviews, it hasn’t really had a complete context review like it has undergone during the past few years, he said.

“The first thing we needed to do was determine what knowledge and skills our graduates should have,” Heilman said. “We created external panels outside the Texas A&M University System — from academia, industry and government agencies. That reduced imposing our biases.”

With about 100 panelists providing input, he said information was gathered to create learning outcomes that describe what graduates should be able to do when they get out, such as data analysis, communication and working collaboratively.

“And then these learning outcomes were used as a basis for developing new courses and revising existing courses,” Heilman said. “We are eliminating courses and replacing them with new ones. The total number of courses didn’t change that much, but the structure of the courses has changed.

“We’ve designed our courses to first introduce learning outcomes, then be followed by courses that reinforce the learning outcomes, and then the students will go to capstone courses designed to demonstrate mastery of the skill – problem-solving and creative thinking,” he said. “They will be studying real-world problems and coming up with creative solutions.”

The new curriculum will involve less lecturing and more lab and field instruction, which will create both challenges and excitement among professors and students, Heilman said.

“Our new degree programs will be a bachelor’s of science in plant and environmental soil science, which is an existing degree we’ve modified,” he said. “And we are awaiting approval of a new degree, a bachelor’s of science in turfgrass science.”

The existing agronomy degree has been merged into the plant and environmental soil science degree, Heilman said. This degree will have two areas of emphasis: crops, and soil and water.

He said the department will begin to phase in the new plant and environmental science degree in the fall semester. Students already enrolled will graduate under the curriculum they started under, although course substitutions are possible if they want to take new courses. The agronomy degree won’t be eliminated until the current students have graduated.

The turfgrass science degree must go through the approval of the Board of Regents and the Texas Higher Education Board and is anticipated being offered in the fall of 2013, he said.

“Right now turfgrass is an option under agronomy, but we want to make it a turfgrass science degree like many other universities,” Heilman said. “We have one of the, if not the, strongest turfgrass programs in the U.S.”

One of the new courses is sports field construction, which includes plant science, soil science and water, he said. This will be helpful to individuals working with golf courses, football fields and other areas where they must establish turfgrass, irrigation and drainage — all parts of that course.

“One of the major benefits of going through this process is it forced us to rethink how we educate our students,” Heilman said. “They learn by doing; getting hands-on experience. They learn to be innovative and problem-solvers through our curriculum.”

And Heilman said while the three-year process is complete, the curriculum review is not.

“Curriculum has to be subject to review and revision; it cannot be static,” he said. “This update of the curriculum will continue through a constant process of assessment and improvement.”

Dr. David Baltensperger, professor and head of the department of soil and crop sciences, said, “It was great to see our faculty, clientele and students so engaged in redesigning our curriculum to keep our graduates competitive as we move to the future.”

He said students who are seeking further information on how the revised curriculum might provide a career path for them should contact Mark Hall, academic adviser, at MarkHall@tamu.edu.

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