UW’s hybrid of agricultural science

This article was written by Dr. Robin Groose and originally published in the Casper Star-Tribune on September 14, 1993. It has been reproduced here with the author’s consent.

 Dr. Robin W. Groose

UW’s hybrid of agricultural science

Agroecology.” You won’t find the word in Webster’s. But someday you will.

Today “Agroecology” appears with increasing frequency in the scientific literature, and even in new book and journal titles.

And you’ll find a new program in Agroecology at the University of Wyoming. My department, Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences (PS&IS), has consolidated three separate undergraduate majors into a single new interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science degree program in Agroecology that will prepare students for careers in scientific, technical, commercial, and production agriculture, as well as in related fields of biology, environmental science, and natural resource management.

Defining Agroecology. In fact, agriculture is just now defining this new science.

The word is a hybrid between “agronomy,” the science of crops and soils, and “ecology,” the branch of biology concerned with interrelationships among organisms and their environments.

Modern science is often guilty of “reductionism” which is to solve problems by breaking complex phenomena down into simpler component parts, but then failing to see the bigger picture, i.e., “not seeing the forest for the trees.”

Agroecology strives to pull the components of crop production into a more complete picture and to view the agroecosystem as a whole – and in the context of today’s global economy and environment.

Redefining Agriculture. Facing new challenges, agriculture redefines itself in a changing world.

Agroecology attempts to meet many challenges: Environmentalists demand better conservation of natural resources; consumers demand safer food; taxpayers demand an end to government subsidies; and so on.

The critics are sometimes correct, sometimes not. And often the criticism is not constructive, tendered with no suggestion for improvement – or with utterly unrealistic solutions.

And indeed, we in agriculture are often our own harshest critics. We know that much of prevailing practice agricultural practice is economically and environmentally unsustainable.Agroecology seeks solutions.

As always at the University, research guides and complements teaching.PS&IS research in biological control of plant pests, genetic and physiological adaptation of plants to harsh environments, reduced tillage for soil conservation, and more profitable crop production will enhance the Agroecology curriculum, as will interaction with other departments through the new School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Agroecology has special relevance in the West with its extreme environments. Wyoming is a natural home for this frontier in agricultural science.

Redefining Curricula. Agroecology is part of a larger nation-wide effort to redefine university curricula in all disciplines to better prepare students for more responsible citizenship in modern society, as well as for productive and rewarding professional careers.

New courses in Agroecology, together with core courses in natural science, form the foundation for our new curriculum. Traditional agricultural disciplines build on that foundation.

In many ways, Agroecology is more demanding than our previous curricula.Agriculture is applied biology; and modern biology is grounded in biochemistry and genetics. All Agroecology majors will study these subjects. And because agriculture is an economic endeavor, agricultural economics is required too.

The curriculum is comprehensive but concentrated to maximize the choice of free electives, and to accommodate UW general education (University Studies Program) requirements for writing, mathematics, humanities, social sciences, arts, constitutional government, and global studies. We believe the good citizen requires breadth, as well as depth, in education.

In addition to curriculum content, Agroecology addresses issues of teaching method. Agroecology will provide more relevant and experiential learning, i.e., learning in context and by doing.And Agroecology is designed to help students develop better communication and interpersonal skills, and the ability to think critically, synthesize information, and solve problems.

Ultimately, our goal is to graduate independent thinkers who can recognize and solve real problems facing agriculture – and successfully refute the bogus challenges.

Around the country, other colleges of agriculture are considering programs in Agroecology too. But Wyoming is first.

Defining Ourselves. In defining new curricula, the university redefines itself in context of the changing society it serves. And reciprocally, new university curricula redefine society.To develop a curriculum is a serious undertaking.

Wyoming’s Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be honored next month by the University of Wyoming for her efforts to strengthen America’s college curricula. In her book, 50Hours: ACoreCurriculumforCollegeStudents, Cheney likens the curriculum to a map, but notes that “charting a map for learning has this difference from charting land and sea: We are always, as we draw the map, living in the Age of Discovery, likely to find ourselves awed by the significance of what had once seemed of only passing importance, amazed by wonders we didn’t know existed.”

Cheney goes on, concluding with a line from Walt Whitman: “Ancient mapmakers inscribed legends on their maps – warnings, usually, of monsters and wonders. For a map of learning, another kind of instruction is fitting, a legend drawn from a poet: ‘Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.'”