Setting incoming agronomy students up for success, one trip at a time

Group of Department of Agronomy students and faculty wearing red T-shirts, posed for a group photo in front of tall, green corn plants. A blue, partly cloudy sky can be seen above them.
The 2022 Agronomy New Student Learning Community traveled to the southeast part of the state prior to the start of the fall 2022 semester. Each year, incoming freshmen agronomy students tour farms, businesses and natural areas in a different quadrant of the state the Friday and Saturday before classes start to learn about all the agronomy field has to offer.

By Whitney Baxter

What better way to begin your time as an agronomy student than loading up on a bus, traveling around parts of the state and getting to know fellow classmates and instructors?

For the past 25 years (minus one year due to COVID), the Department of Agronomy has been taking incoming freshmen students on the annual Agronomy New Student Learning Community field trip the Friday and Saturday before the fall semester begins. Visiting a different quadrant of Iowa each year, the students tour farms, businesses and natural areas to expose them to all the agronomy field has to offer.

Transfer students take part in an afternoon field trip to get to know each other and departmental research faculty.

The pre-semester trip is what makes the learning community unique.

“It’s a great opportunity to build community among students, faculty and staff. Students can gain an understanding of career paths and summer internship opportunities within agronomy,” said Heidi Ackerman, agronomy academic advisor and learning community leader. She is also a former learning community member, having earned her agronomy degree in 2013.

Wyatt Bailey, senior in agronomy, served as one of the learning community’s peer mentors during his sophomore year. That year’s trip took students to southwest Iowa, with stops at a land and cattle company and the birthplace of Henry A. Wallace, an Iowa State alumnus and founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

Two male students taking part in a hands-on activity related to soil and water. They, and a few other students, are standing around a white folding table outside.
During the annual field trip, freshmen agronomy students take part in various hands-on activities to help them learn about agronomy-related topics and practices.

“The importance of this field trip every year is, first and foremost, to provide an opportunity for incoming agronomy freshmen to gain an insight into Iowa agriculture while building relationships with their peers and networking with faculty and staff,” Bailey said. “By being a peer mentor on this trip, I got to experience first-hand the friendships that formed, and as the year went on, I got to see those friendships strengthen.”

Brooklyn Denger, sophomore in agronomy, participated in the learning community last year. She appreciated how her involvement made the transition to Iowa State easier.

“At the beginning of my freshman year, I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in, and that the university would be too large to form deep connections with others in my major,” Denger said. “However, the learning community allowed me to interact with a smaller group of people with similar interests. It made me feel more at home and comfortable at Iowa State.”

Beyond the start-of-the-semester field trip, the learning community students enroll in the same sections of required English 150 and English 250 courses. These class sections are tailored to include agriculture-related writing and reading assignments. The students also take other class sections together, including those for Chemistry 163, Math 140, Biology 212 and several 100-level agronomy courses.

Various social and community service events are also scheduled throughout the academic year to continue building relationships outside the classroom setting. Learning community members also meet with the peer mentors weekly to talk about internship opportunities, advice for classes and how to access resources on campus.

“Every week, I provided a piece of information or advice that I believed was valuable for an incoming student, having been an ‘experienced’ student myself,” Bailey said. “I learned just as much from my mentees as they did from me.”

Tyler Reimers, another former learning community member, graduated in 2012 with his agronomy degree. He is now an assistant agronomy division manager for Farm Service Co-op in Harlan, Iowa. In his profession, he often comes across people in the agriculture industry who are Iowa State graduates and have taken part in the agronomy learning community.

“It gave me a firm footing to feel comfortable being at Iowa State, and it exposed me to the many options in the agronomy field,” Reimers said of the learning community. “I was able to build a network of people to turn to when I have questions, even today.”

Mary Wiedenhoeft, interim chair and Morrill Professor in the Department of Agronomy, said the learning community has increased student success in the department.

“We want to set our students up for success early on in their academic careers, and the Agronomy New Student Learning Community does just that,” Wiedenhoeft said. “It is so rewarding to hear former students talk so highly of the learning community and its positive impacts on their time at Iowa State and now as working professionals. We hope the program will continue positively influencing agronomy students for years to come.”