By Whitney Baxter
A discussion over cups of coffee in 1995 about how students were commuting to Ames for master’s degree programs resulted in the formation of a program that would lead the way in distance education at Iowa State University.
The Master of Science in Agronomy program celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer. Offered as a distance education program, it stemmed from an identified need to provide a master’s degree option that would better align with working professionals’ schedules.
Ken Moore, distinguished professor of agronomy, Richard Shibles, professor emeritus of agronomy, and Allen Knapp, professor emeritus of agronomy, were the masterminds behind the creation of this program. Based on surveys of Iowa State graduates who earned bachelor’s degrees in agronomy-related fields in the 1980s and early 1990s, the trio discovered a desire among those surveyed to enroll in a master’s program that offered courses on nights and weekends.
Courses developed specifically for the program covered the topics of crops, soils and climatology, giving students a broad background in agronomy and related disciplines. The courses were designed for working professionals to give them the knowledge and experience needed to advance in their industry or governmental roles.
Angie Begosh graduated from Iowa State with her master’s in agronomy in 2008. While her job did not require her to have a master’s degree or begin working toward one, she wanted to better understand how agriculture systems work and how to make them more sustainable.
Knowing it would not be feasible to quit her full-time job to pursue her master’s degree, she appreciated the flexibility Iowa State’s program offered.
“Being able to earn a degree while still working preserved my economic stability and allowed me to get where I am today,” Begosh said.
Those leading the program have continuously evaluated the course offerings over the years to be sure they align with students’ needs.
Early on, the Department of Agronomy partnered with Ann Thompson, former chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in what was then Iowa State’s College of Education (now the School of Education within the College of Human Sciences) to ensure the program would be successful. They looked to Thompson for guidance in evaluating the program’s effectiveness related to courses and learning experiences.
Students are asked many times throughout their enrollment in the program to complete evaluations or surveys about the lessons in each course and submit end-of-semester evaluations related to courses and instructors.
“It was a remarkably valuable relationship we built, and it helped us improve the program,” Moore said.
Industry professionals have also provided curriculum-related input based on what they seek in future employees.
John Eveland was in the first cohort of students enrolled in the master’s program in 1998. Having earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Iowa State in 1970, he had always thought it would be a good idea to get his master’s degree. Advertisements announcing the new online program caught his eye and pushed him to pursue that higher degree.
“It helped me keep learning and taught me how to research topics to dig deeper,” Eveland said of the master’s program.
One of the topics he dug deeper into was seeing if there was any difference in soil sample reports from one soil testing company to another. This became the focus of Eveland’s creative component – a non-thesis project required of all students in the program. Students can choose a project area that interests them or is relevant to their current or future careers.
Eveland sent the same soil samples from southern Iowa and Fort Dodge fields to several soil testing companies and compared the results. He discovered that the same soil, tested at different facilities, came back with varying nutrient value reports and recommendations.
When it came time to defend his creative component, Eveland was surprised to see a room full of 70-80 people eager to hear the results of his project.
“It was an interesting and meaningful project for me to work on, and it turns out there was a huge amount of interest in the topic,” Eveland said.
This is evidence of the two-way learning between students and facultly that comes out of the program, specifically the creative components.
“One of the unique things I’ve noticed is that we’re always learning from the students,” Moore said.
Opportunities to grow professionally
Begosh’s creative component focused on identifying factors influencing landowners to enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program and whether their involvement benefits natural resource conservation and agricultural producers long-term.
“In a nutshell, conservation programs will need to be incentive-driven, but they can be an important part of shaping the landscape in some parts of the country,” Begosh said of her findings.
Following her master’s degree, Begosh earned a doctoral degree in zoology, during which she studied how land use, including the Conservation Reserve Program, affects pollinator communities. This led to her current job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she helps biologists design and implement monitoring programs to determine the success of their prairie and savannah restorations.
“The master’s program opened a huge door for me,” Begosh said. “The coursework was high quality, and I had the opportunity to make my creative component as intense and involved as I wanted. It's what you choose to make of it.”
Marco Saul Alarcon, a 2023 graduate of the master’s program, was inspired to enroll due to his desire to gain a higher-level understanding of soil, pest management and other agronomic subjects. He appreciated the opportunities the program offered to interact with other agronomy professionals, especially during the week-long, on-campus practicum (Agron 594) required of all students.
“During this week each July, students participate in field and laboratory experiences, putting what they have learned to practice. They also tour current research programs,” said Mark Licht, associate professor of agronomy and one of the graduate program instructors.
“Visiting the Department of Agronomy and laboratories made me feel like I was really part of the Iowa State student community,” Alarcon said. “Meeting and chatting with agronomists from different agriculture areas was also a very nice experience.”
Alarcon appreciates his newfound knowledge of writing research documents and his improved skills in soils, irrigation, plant physiology and statistics.
“Pursuing a higher education will always bring positive outcomes. In my case, it made me feel more professionally confident and encouraged my creativity to develop new ideas to improve agriculture production,” he said.
When the program began in 1998, online education programs and working professionals continuing full-time employment while earning their degrees part-time were new concepts. In 2015, the Online Agronomy program in the department began offering a Graduate Certificate Program in Agronomy.
“We certainly pushed the envelope for many years in distance education,” Moore said.
Since 1998, 284 students and working professionals have completed their master’s degrees in agronomy, and 135 students have completed the graduate certificate. The students have come from all over the United States, Canada, Mexico and a few international locations.