An ag education without borders

More int_agUW-Madison students are preparing for life at the cutting edge of agriculture, from international markets to alternative production methods.

With funding from the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates—a campus-wide effort to boost the value, quality and affordability of undergraduate education—College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) has been helping professors integrate international experiences into their courses. This year students will experience life and agriculture in places as far-flung as Norway, Guatemala and the Philippines.

Some students will travel to the locations they are studying, but other courses are bringing stories home to Wisconsin classrooms.

Animal science professor John Parrish wants students to be ready to learn from real-world problems and solutions. He used his CALS course internationalization grant to build a case study on Filipino hogs.

His Filipino case study asks students to grapple with the problem of overheated hogs. When too hot, hogs produce fewer offspring—a familiar animal husbandry challenge in the tropical Philippines.

Students in John Parrish’s course examining hog sperm morphology following a heat stress event that could have occurred in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of John Parrish.

Parrish says the scenario equips the students to deal with climate change impacts at home. “In Wisconsin, we normally have had 12 days over 90 degrees every summer,” says Parrish, “Last year we had 30. We are expected to average 20 days over 90 degrees by 2020.”

Students examine the Filipino innovations and learn how they might be applied to hog production here in Wisconsin. Not only do the Filipino producers keep the hogs cool, but they also manage to maintain a hog facility right next to a housing development. There is no odor because all of the hog waste is processed in an anaerobic digester that powers the facility.

Parrish’s CALS grant allowed him to develop a highly interactive, internet-based module about the case. Students can now digitally explore the facility and watch interviews of Filipinos in hog production, the government, and consumers.

Other professors have used the grant to directly link American students to their counterparts abroad. UW-Madison botany professor Don Waller and plant pathology professor Caitilyn Allen connected a group of UW students with a group of Guatemalan students, all studying international agriculture. The classrooms were linked through internet conferencing, and during winter break the UW students traveled to Guatemala.

“The Guatemalan students were very interested in how much corn we grow and how we grow it,” says Waller, “and our students were surprised by how Guatemalan agriculture is plugged in to international markets.” Waller said the students were especially struck by the use of technologies like a two-story-tall sugar cane combine in Guatemala.

Like Parrish’s students, Waller’s compared Wisconsin agriculture to that of another country; in this case, Guatemala. They found that both sides had a lot to learn from each other.

Guatemala exports to highly specialized markets – from gourmet vegetables for Trader Joe’s in the U.S. to ferns for European flower arrangements. The country also hosts U.S. plant breeders whose innovations are used back home.

Regardless of whether they travel to the country studied or learn about it online, today’s UW-Madison students are ready to enter a highly internationalized agricultural world.

Cathy Day