Course grows professional skills, networks for College of Ag Sciences students

A new pilot course, “Agricultural and Extension Education 597: Innovation and Critical Thinking Practicum,” provides the opportunity for graduate students to gain real-world experience and to cultivate relationships with professionals. Credit: AdobeAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Given the time constraints they face, it is not uncommon for graduate students to have little relevant professional experience as they near the end of their academic journey. This circumstance can put them at a disadvantage if they choose to pursue employment in the private sector.

A new pilot course, “Agricultural and Extension Education 597: Innovation and Critical Thinking Practicum,” offered by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, provides the opportunity for students to gain real-world experience and to cultivate relationships with professionals in their desired career field.

The practicum was the brainchild of Gary Thompson, former associate dean for research and graduate education in the college, noted Maria Spencer, the John and Patty Warehime Entrepreneur in Residence in the college’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program.

“The overarching goal is professional development for students, not necessarily additional lab or technical experience,” she said. “This includes professional communication, growing their professional network, seeing how resources flow and decisions are made within companies, and being part of a professional team.”

Unlike a traditional internship, which often involves entry-level tasks, the practicum students —preferably second-year master’s degree students or doctoral candidates — shadow mentors on a project team and are encouraged to contribute their knowledge and viewpoints.

Practicum projects are all innovation-focused and include topics such as technology assessment, product improvement and new product development. Because the target students tend to be focused on their dissertation research and writing, Spencer offers the practicum for one, two or three credits to ensure that course requirements can be managed and not hinder academic commitments.

Students typically are recruited for the practicum based on their fit with an available project. Industry collaborator Xinova, a global innovation and technology networking firm headquartered in Seattle, Washington, and the director of its innovation services group, Nick Milanovich, have been critical to success of the pilot offering.

Spencer and Milanovich partner to match students with a team of professionals from the company’s innovation network for an eight-week “rapid innovation session,” which is led by the Xinova team.

Teams meet virtually to brainstorm ideas and develop solutions for a client, which can be a company, government agency or nongovernmental organization. Projects run the gamut from innovations in food formulations to paper products to medical devices, Milanovich explained, and are conducted with strict confidentiality standards, which the students and all team members must follow.

“At first, our intention was for the students to observe and perhaps help with some research,” he said. “But we found that the teams — and our clients — embrace the students, treating them as full participants and intelligent contributors. These students are excellent, and I would welcome them back as participants in other projects.”

Part of Milanovich’s motivation for assisting with the practicum comes from his own experience as a graduate student.

“I remember not knowing anything other than my academic discipline of chemistry and that I could become a professor,” he said. “I want to give students a perspective on other opportunities that are available to them.”

Spencer lauded Xinova and its clients, calling them “incredible partners” and saying, “Across the board, the sentiment has been, ‘I wish I had this opportunity when I was still in school,’ and everyone involved has gone the extra mile to make this collaboration work for the students.”

Spencer and Milanovich said students can leverage their practicum teams for professional references and insight into employment opportunities, pointing to Drew Elder, the first student recruited for the practicum, as a perfect example.

Elder’s contributions to his team impressed Milanovich, leading to an invitation for the doctoral candidate in food science to assist Xinova with the final presentation to the client. His performance in the practicum since has earned Elder multiple invitations to apply for professional opportunities, including a full-time job in his desired field.

Drew Elder, a doctoral candidate in food science, was the first student recruited for the practicum. Credit: Drew ElderAll Rights Reserved.

“It was eye-opening to see how teams come up with solutions,” Elder said. “It also helped me see how my research has made me a little narrow-minded in approaching problems. This entire experience has been unlike any other, and it has allowed me to develop skills that will help me in my career.”

Grace Voronin, who also is pursuing a doctoral degree in food science, worked on a project related to nondairy food products. She said working with such a diverse group of food scientists was one of the many benefits of the practicum.

“It was amazing to observe a variety of personalities, cultures and backgrounds come together to create solutions for the food industry,” she said. “To successfully work with industry, scientists have to be able to disseminate information effectively and base their research on industry needs. I think this project provided me with opportunities to do that.”

Established in 2013, the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program in the College of Agricultural Sciences adds value to new ideas and research discoveries by encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset among students and faculty.

The program contributes to the Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor, hosts a startup business competition for students, and sponsors the competitive Research Applications for Innovation grant program. Since 2013, more than $1 million in RAIN grants have been awarded to 16 projects.

More information can be obtained by contacting Spencer at 814-865-6944.

Last Updated January 14, 2021