New ag engineering major to fill regional need, say UWRF officials

Posted September 22, 2015

Starting in the fall of 2016, students at UW-River Falls will be able to major in agricultural engineering, according to the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES).

The program, which was approved by the UW System Board of Regents on Sept. 11, will be part of a consortium between UW-River Falls, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout in which all three universities will be introducing engineering programs.

The new major will be connected to but not the same as the already existing agricultural engineering technology program, according to Joseph Shakal, chair of the agricultural engineering technology department. He compared it to the difference between a physician and a physician’s assistant, explaining that the new program would correspond to the physician, while the technology program would correspond to the assistant.

“It’s more theoretical in nature,” Shakal said. “It’s more of a rigorous program, requiring higher-level math and physics.”

Dean of CAFES Dale Gallenberg said that although the new program will be rigorous, he hopes it will have a positive impact on retention. He said that the students enrolling in the program will likely be quality students who are dedicated to the major. However, if students find that agricultural engineering isn’t for them, they can always switch to another major within UWRF.

“And in the same way, we know we have students here in the ag engineering technology program who would be capable of and interested in an engineering program,” Gallenberg said. “And so the opportunity will be there for those students for transfer and advancement as well.”

When the program was first proposed, it was met with objections from universities such as UW-Platteville and UW-Madison. Gallenberg said that he believes the objections were tied to perceptions of limited state resources and a limited set of engineering students in the state.

However, Gallenberg said that the program’s funding model depends on external funding and industry partnerships, not solely state resources. He also said that the pool of students is not as limited as it may seem.

“There’s literally nothing north of Madison servicing this part of the state in terms of home campuses,” Gallenberg said. “Whereas Platteville would say, ‘Our doors are open to students,’ students are reluctant to drive that far.”

Shakal said there is a need for engineering programs at smaller universities in the Midwest. He explained that large universities could be intimidating to students from small towns.

“I think our new program offers an opportunity for students to get an engineering education in a smaller-school environment where the professors know your name walking down the hallway, and you can pop in and talk to any professor any time you want,” Shakal said.

During the 2014-2015 academic year, 83 students were enrolled in the agricultural engineering technology program, according to UWRF’s Office of Institutional Research. The goal for the first year of the agricultural engineering program is 15 students, a number that Shakal called realistic.

The four current agricultural engineering technology faculty members will work with both departments, and one additional faculty member will be hired before the fall 2016 semester. Gallenberg said that a sixth faculty member may be added two years later to help the department run the upper-level courses.

“We’ve been working at this for a while. It’s approved, and now we’re ready to get on with the real business of implementing the program,” Gallenberg said.