College of ACES
College News

Illinois horticulture curriculum is new and improved

Published March 14, 2012
After about 15 years, faculty members in the Department of Crop Sciences have revamped the University of Illinois horticulture program to provide students with a flexible curriculum to suit their career goals.

The updated curriculum will be available to incoming freshmen and transfer students this fall. Associate Professor Gary Kling said "the proof was in the pudding" when almost every current student switched to the new curriculum last fall.

The new curriculum offers students a concentration in specialty crops or sustainable landscapes. The faculty believes the specialty crops title is more attractive and identifiable to employers than the former production and management concentration. The sustainable landscape title highlights how horticulture contributes to sustainability.

"Many students didn't seem to be connecting the fact that horticulture does support sustainability and food systems," said Sarah Taylor Lovell, an assistant professor of sustainable landscape design. "Each concentration had the core of classes, but we needed to remarket them to appeal to students and employers."

Kling said these changes were four years in the making. With input from countless students, alumni and staff, the horticulture faculty scrapped two plans before settling on a flexible curriculum they felt would suit students' needs.

"I assume in three or four years we will modify it a little bit again," Kling said. "I think a curriculum is never permanent because the needs of the graduates are always changing. We must continue talking to students and graduates in order to provide future students with an enriching curriculum."

Lovell said the curriculum's flexibility will allow the program to adapt better to industry trends in the future. New courses based on the most recent interests, such as urban agriculture, can be added to the lists of electives, she said.

Kling said input from students this go-around influenced several of the program's changes.

Many sustainable landscape students felt that several courses in the former 12-hour "specialization supplement" were not applicable to their areas of interest. The new curriculum allows students to choose one course from a list of more relevant options.

"We took the student perspective and said, 'Hey, what are the best of the bunch?'" Kling said. "Then we gave them the choice because every student has a slightly different goal, different background and different career objective."

Sustainable landscapes students will also enjoy greater flexibility when selecting their plant materials courses. Previously, students selected two woody courses, but now they take the woody landscape plants course and choose three others from a group of courses, including grasses in managed settings, native plants for landscapes, Herbaceous Plants I, and more.

"We tried to set up the curriculum so students could choose what's in their best interest but still provide them with some guidelines," Kling said. "For example, if you have a student who is interested in herbaceous crops, they might pick out herbaceous plants I and II and the native plants course or a turf course. Someone interested in landscape would be more likely to take the second woody course, a grasses course and the perennials course."

Kling said the new sustainable landscapes curriculum also features an environmental systems course to give students an edge in an industry that is becoming more and more geared toward sustainable practices. He said students will need to learn the terminology, theories and concepts of environmental systems in order to pitch sustainable ideas and maintain sustainable practices.

Sustainable landscapes students will now develop a stronger background in landscape graphics and design with the addition of a third semester course to the two-semester sequence of design classes. Students will master hand drawing in addition to rendering and computer graphics. The new sequence also allows the students to be exposed to the concepts and theory behind sustainable design earlier in the program.

Landscape architecture students in the College of Fine and Applied Arts will now benefit from the new advanced landscape design course, called sustainable landscape design. Lovell worked with FAA to crosslist her course and provide a time that fit within the program's separate curriculum.

"Before landscape architecture students weren't able to pursue a background in residential design," Kling said. "Now we have given them an opportunity to come over here and get that background while receiving credit that counts toward their graduation because the course is crosslisted as a part of their curriculum."

Sustainable landscape students are no longer required to take the plant and animal genetics course required for the specialty crops concentration. Kling said that the course was less applicable to landscape careers.

Likewise, specialty crops students can choose between organic chemistry and CPSC 382, an organic chemistry course with an agricultural emphasis.

"Believe it or not, we have students that end up going to medical school. For that, they need organic chemistry," Kling said. "Many others work with organic compounds all the time, but they don't necessarily synthesize compounds. For them, CPSC 382 may be the better option."

One of the biggest changes to the program was the addition of a mandatory professional or residential internship. Kling said that many in the industry felt this addition was crucial to prepare students for the job market.

In addition to updating the curriculum, the horticulture program will welcome a new faculty member to teach students about urban agriculture and local foods. Kling said the horticulture faculty believe that local food is an up-and-coming niche students will want to be exposed to at U of I.

Lovell said the new faculty member will work in Chicago to develop a program that explores how to produce foods in urban environments.

"The need to optimize green space in urban areas by producing food is a potential method to deal with urban food insecurity," she said. "A lot of urban communities literally don't have access to fresh food at all so by growing food in their communities we can improve their access."

The horticulture faculty values their ability to provide students with the opportunity to be exposed to new trends, set themselves apart in an ever-changing industry and provide personal attention to help their students succeed.

"When they walk across the graduation stage, there isn't anyone I don't know," Kling said. "We have the opportunity to give them a lot of one-on-one attention to help them get where they want to go."

Upon graduation, a majority of students find positions, Kling said. Many horticultural students use their degree to manage their own business.

"Job placement is one of the real positives of our program," he said. "Our students who graduated last year by and large have found positions, and for driven students there is no limit of positions. A recent graduate interviewed for five positions and received all five offers."