Should more producers utilize bovine growth hormone to meet the 100% expected increase in global food needs by 2064? This is the sort of question tackled by students in Agricultural and Food Systems (AFS). In the AFS senior capstone course, students are provided with the opportunity to apply scientific inquiry, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in a team setting to analyze agribusiness challenges and to develop original research related to issues in agricultural and food production. Small student teams are partnered with an industry representative, who they work with throughout the semester to create a strategy for addressing a problem or creating an initiative for the company, replicating the challenges students will face in the professional work environment. 

AFS faculty are using assessment to understand how well their students build skills and knowledge to solve tough problems, beginning in the introductory core course (AFS 101) and culminating in this senior capstone (AFS 401). As an interdisciplinary degree program involving eight aligned disciplines (Crop Science, Soil Science, Horticulture, Entomology, Plant Pathology, Economics, Food Science and Animal Sciences), assessment at the curriculum level is especially important to determine how well students are integrating and applying what they learn from different disciplines and courses. By identifying any areas in which students struggle in the senior capstone course, faculty can better target efforts in lower-level courses to bolster student preparation and practice for integrated senior-level work.

Recent assessment of the capstone project took the form of both faculty and industry feedback on student reports and presentations. Feedback noted room for improvement in problem solving and critical thinking, particularly related to students’ ability to frame questions, organize and synthesize evidence, depict information, and develop logical, supported conclusions. Recognizing that such issues need to be addressed throughout the curriculum, faculty teaching the core AFS courses (401, 201, and 101) discussed these results and planned ways to address the deficits. One of the resulting actions was that Jeb Owen, the 101 instructor and member of the AFS/IPS Assessment Committee, introduced an adjusted course last semester. The course’s framework became a problem-based learning format that included heavy exposure to scientific literature, exercises in data interpretation, logic modeling, and logic-based exams. While he saw improvements at the end of the first semester, he hopes that further adjustments will lead to higher student gains the next time he teaches the course. He recently presented the course strategy at a faculty retreat, generating discussion and suggestions.

“We want to develop an assessment infrastructure that scales between the classroom and the program overall,” explained Owen. “We need to determine where we succeed and fail at meeting our learning outcomes, and we need to determine why. We will need to integrate assessment across these scales to get those answers.” One way to get at the “why” question is by asking students. Des Layne, Director of AFS, is working with ATL this semester to conduct student focus groups and deliver a senior exit survey in the capstone course, which he teaches. “We hope to receive feedback related to potential changes both in the AFS program and the capstone course, in particular,” explained Layne.

The initial development and refinement of AFS core courses has taken considerable time and effort over a few years, as is typical in a relatively new degree program (established in 2009) and is perhaps especially typical for an interdisciplinary degree program. Using assessment results and faculty discussion to guide this effort has been critical in the process of creating a curriculum that consciously scaffolds student learning and provides opportunities for students to use a holistic, integrated approach to solving problems for the world’s agricultural and food systems.

For help using assessment to inform curriculum development and improvement, contact an ATL assessment specialist.