School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences positively influences teens

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Like most teens, Ethan Brady never thought much about global issues or the role agriculture plays in society. However, that changed following his participation in the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State this summer.

"This (school) taught me about world issues and cultures that I never knew about before, and the role agriculture can play in solving global problems," the Purchase Line Jr./Sr. High School senior said. "I have a bigger world view, and that's pretty cool."

That "bigger world view" was one of the outcomes his parents, Tom and Tammany Brady had hoped for when they encouraged him to follow in his brother's footsteps and attend the University Park-based program.

"It had a great impact on our older son, so we felt it would be good for Ethan too," Tammany Brady said. "It's an exceptional program that's exceeded our expectations."

Brady was one of 39 students selected to attend the four-week residential program, which provides academically talented rising high school seniors in Pennsylvania an opportunity to explore the fields of agricultural science and natural resources and life on a college campus.

Participants also are encouraged to look beyond their own worlds and come up with solutions to problems — such as lack of access to clean water, malnutrition and social injustice — faced by those living in developing countries.

"It's amazing to see how this program enriches and transforms the lives of the students involved," said Jenneth Layaou, the College of Agricultural Sciences' director of campus enrollment and retention, who oversees the program. "We've hosted this program since 1986, and in that time, 1,600 participants have been impacted and have gone on to change the world. I have no doubt this year's scholars will do the same — they are a fantastic group of young adults."

During their time on campus, students took part in a variety of classes, hands-on activities and service projects led by faculty and staff. Topics included global agriculture, environmental and natural resource systems, animal science, ecosystem ecology, food science, and plants and people.

At times, lessons extended beyond the walls of a classroom and into the field. For example, the students tracked wildlife using radio telemetry and studied plants during visits to The Arboretum at Penn State; they studied water quality, stream structure and macro invertebrates at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center; and they toured the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs, where they gained valuable insights into research involving cover crops, weed management, soil fertility, crop variety trials, pest-management strategies and plant disease, among other topics.

The students also learned about animal health and behavior during excursions to the Penn State deer pens, a fish hatchery in Bellefonte, and the Pittsburgh Zoo. The animal-related activities were a favorite for many, including Jenna Harnish, an Athens Area High School student, whose family owns a dairy farm. Though she knows a lot about cows, she had the opportunity to do something she has not done before — study bovine anatomy — during a veterinary lesson at the university's dairy barns.

"That was interesting, and it not only extended my knowledge, but I think it was a good experience for everyone, especially those who've never been on a farm," said Harnish, who plans to attend Penn State following graduation.

A significant part of the curriculum entailed conducting research on a global problem such as malnutrition, starvation or lack of clean water. Guest speaker Roger Thurow, senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, spoke with the students about the economic and social costs of hunger and malnutrition. The author of "The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change," Thurow challenged them to use their talents to make positive changes in those areas.

On the heels of that presentation, the students were tasked with writing a five-page research paper, focusing on a global issue and country of their choosing. Melanie Miller-Foster, assistant professor of international agriculture, supervised the undertaking.

"Writing the research paper was a challenging assignment for the students, especially in light of all the other activities they participated in," she said. "This is a rewarding group of students to work with. They are highly motivated and eager to explore all the college has to offer."

Four of those student essays were selected to represent Pennsylvania during the three-day Global Youth Institute, slated for mid-October in Des Moines, Iowa, and hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. Students chosen to attend the conference will have the opportunity to discuss their research findings with international experts, connect with other students from around the world, tour cutting-edge industrial and research facilities and take part in symposium discussions with global leaders in science, industry and policy.

The essay winners and their topics were: Abigail Yoder, Central Columbia High School, "Brazil, Malnutrition"; Gabrielle Henrichs, DuBois Area High School, "Save the Reef, Save the World"; Natalie Napolitano, Quaker Valley High School, ''Malnutrition in India: Sustainability, Sanitation, and Community"; and Shannon Reinhard, Northampton High School, "Uganda: Supporting the Farmers is the First Step Toward Better Nutrition."

For many of the students, the program helped them to decide if a career in agricultural sciences was a good fit and gave them the opportunity to experience college life at Penn State. One of the participants — Corey Hill — said the experience reinforced her plan to attend Penn State and pursue her dream of becoming a large-animal veterinarian.    

"Penn State was my top school choice, and this (experience) made it even more appealing," the Haverford High School senior said. "It might be a big school, but I feel connected here."

That sense of connection should be even stronger for students such as Hill, as more than half of the participants plan to attend Penn State, according to Layaou.

"Overall, we've had 64 percent of participants from the past three years attend Penn State, including 80 percent of the 2016 class who started at Penn State this fall," she said. "The program does not end with the admittance to Penn State — we continue to support this special group throughout their Penn State academic experience."

To make the experience complete, Layaou and her staff made sure there was a good mix of rigorous academic experiences and social outings. Bowling parties, trips to Berkey Creamery, and visits to Arts Fest were just of few downtime excursions that allowed the youth to have fun and make lifelong friendships.

"We're like a big family now," said Hill. "I've become good friends with students who are in the same 4-H in Delaware County, yet we didn't know each other until we met here. Everyone has been friendly."

Layaou lauded the commitment of the students and their families, and the administration, faculty and staff of the College of Agricultural Sciences for making the program successful. She further acknowledged Dean Rick Roush for his commitment to the program.

"Without support, this school would not be possible," she said. "Its importance to the students and how it changes their lives cannot be overstated."

To learn more about the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, visit the webpage, or like the Facebook page, Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Ag Sciences.

Thirty-nine students from across the state participated in the 2017 Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State this summer. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated September 08, 2017