Campus Life

Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering marks 100-year anniversary

The renovated Agricultural Engineering Building on Penn State's University Park campus was dedicated on June 8, 2018. Credit: Michael HoutzAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering has its roots in a global pandemic and will mark its centennial anniversary amid another — a unique organization bookended by unfortunate circumstances.

The Spanish flu influenza stretched from 1918 to 1920, the year the Department of Machinery was founded in what was then the College of Agriculture. The name was changed by the university in 1932 to the Department of Agricultural Engineering, and the first degrees were offered in 1932. In 1954, the department was aligned with the College of Engineering, with degrees offered jointly by the two colleges.

“We actually were set to celebrate our 100-year anniversary last year, but of course everything was postponed because of COVID-19,” said Paul Heinemann, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, who stepped down as department head July 1. He was replaced by Suat Irmak, Harold W. Eberhard Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

“We were planning to celebrate our centennial with a dinner and open house in October, but we again canceled because of COVID concerns,” Heinemann added. “Our 100th anniversary celebration was to be tied into the College of Engineering’s celebration of its 125th anniversary, because a good number of the living graduates from our department are graduates of the College of Engineering. The College of Engineering also canceled its anniversary celebration.” 

The Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering is uniquely positioned to offer students specialized credentials, Heinemann noted.

“We came out of Ag Sciences, but our alignment with engineering was primarily to get the recognition as an engineering program,” he said. “We had to be affiliated with the College of Engineering to be accredited as an engineering program. And that’s very important because an engineering degree from a non-accredited program may not be recognized for professional positions. Our alignment with engineering was critical to the success of our students.”

However, Heinemann pointed out, the curriculum is supportive of the agriculture industry. “Being administered by the College of Agricultural Sciences puts us where we need to be for the service of the industry,” he said. “It’s really about the curriculum, the program and who we serve. And that’s why being part of both colleges prepares our student for jobs that require engineering expertise in the agriculture industry.”

Today, the department offers two undergraduate majors and two graduate majors. 

The first, the BioRenewable Systems undergraduate major, is described as the perfect combination of sustainability, technology, science and business. It is a hands-on education in the technology, materials, best practices and systems of the worlds of biorenewables and agricultural activities. Graduates take leadership roles in the bioeconomy for renewable-product companies, agricultural support industries, entrepreneurial startups and government agencies, or continue studying at graduate school.

The second, the Biological Engineering undergraduate major, invites students “to enjoy the best of both worlds.” Because it is a Penn State engineering degree, they’ll benefit from the rigor, depth, prestige and enormous resources of both the College of Engineering and the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The major’s focus is creating solutions to sustainability challenges in food production, biological processing and natural resource protection. World-class faculty challenge students to roll up their sleeves and harness engineering principles to make food, fiber and water systems and products more efficient, sustainable, healthy and less wasteful.

The department also offers master’s and doctoral programs in the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Graduate Program and the BioRenewable Systems Graduate Program.

Heinemann offered some examples of the specialized circumstances for which graduates of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering are prepared.

“If they are interested in machinery design, they are very well qualified to design off-road equipment because they understand not only the function of the equipment itself, but the application,” he said. “And for water resource engineers who deal with erosion and nutrient runoff, our students have a deeper understanding of how the water flows, not just through a concrete channel or pipe, but also over open fields. And they learn how that kind of flow affects water quality.” 

The department also trains process engineers such as those students enrolled in the Food and Biological Process Engineering program, who are well-versed in the processes that occur in manufacturing and dealing with biological organisms, Heinemann said, adding that, “It’s one thing to create new products using chemicals, for example, but it’s another thing to use bacteria, fungi or mold to produce products. Our students can do that."

Last Updated September 27, 2021