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Published March 03, 2014, 09:41 AM

MSU awarded for outstanding program

In 2013, the Mother Nature Network, an online network that promotes environmental and social responsibility, named Montana State University’s Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program one of the top 10 best environmental college programs in the U.S.

By: Bianca Bina, Agweek

In 2013, the Mother Nature Network, an online network that promotes environmental and social responsibility, named Montana State University’s Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program one of the top 10 best environmental college programs in the U.S.

This comes as no surprise to program leader Selena Ahmed. “I joined in August from New York,” she says. “I chose Montana specifically because it’s such an innovative program.”

Four topic focus options — agroecology, sustainable crop production, sustainable food systems and sustainable livestock — allow each student to choose a path most relevant to the desired degree and prepares them for the professional side of the business.

“We have a diverse group of students who have many different goals after graduation,” Ahmed says. “Some are working in food banks, community service, policy and food service, and some are planning on working more in the sciences.”

Field experience

The program is fairly new, taking off only five years ago, but is already yielding well-rounded professionals in the field. A recent graduate of the program started a community project, Towne’s Harvest Garden, a three-acre vegetable plot, which now acts as a community and university learning experience. Students from the MSU environmental program maintain the plot with local farmers, gaining hands-on experience and honing communication and professional skills.

“Once they’re on the farm, they get the whole experience,” Ahmed says. “They’re learning the real world, picking up on how to be better communicators — effective communicators. All these things will make them well-rounded individuals in their fields.”

But the experience doesn’t stop there. The school also has a food lab, where students learn in the kitchen, analyzing the effects of food on health and experimenting to find new ways to link the food system with the environment. Internships are required at the 400-level, sending students throughout the world to take on new challenges. The experience encourages students to work with community members within various disciplines so that a connection can be made to all aspects of agriculture.

“The internships allow students to reflect on and build upon the experience,” Ahmed says. “Community engagement allows them to become critical thinkers.”

In the near future, Ahmed will take a group of students to Morocco, where they will live and work on land run by a recent graduate of the program. This is the first international group opportunity for the program.

When shadowing and working with field professionals, students learn the challenges of agriculture first-hand, and later bring the questions and experiences back to the classroom for analysis. Groups will discuss the skills they obtained and the challenges they faced in the field to prepare projects for further learning.

Graduate students also have the opportunity to join the programs, which follow the same type of curriculum, focusing more on fieldwork and further investigation into farming methods, food and health, and other bioenergy issues. It is an opportunity to discover more areas of the program and continue understanding of the interconnectivity of all aspects of agriculture.

In the future, Ahmed says the program is likely to include an aspect focusing on food service and marketing, linking the environmental agriculture program to the business school.

“What makes the program unique is that it’s very interdisciplinary,” she says. “It really positions us differently, because we’re making that connection between agriculture and human health.”

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