During a Friday afternoon class, associate professor Brandon Horvath handed whiteboards to pairs of students, asking them to write key facts about significant people and places in the history of turf grass. The 12 students were scattered in the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture greenhouse classroom that could accommodate more. But 12 students is a sign of growth.
Increasing enrollment is nothing new at the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, where the number of undergraduates is up 86 percent from a decade ago to 1,472 undergraduates. Retention is nearly 90 percent for freshmen, and eight students transfer into the college from elsewhere at UT for every one that leaves, said John Stier, associate dean and professor at the college.
The continual growth is bucking a national trend for some areas, like plant sciences where the turf grass science and management is based. Two years ago, leaders of that concentration decided to take the program’s visibility into their own hands and hired a communications coordinator. Scott Boyle, a Navy veteran, brought with him the Navy’s recruitment strategy of “enhanced targeted visibility.” Enrollment has nearly doubled to almost 40.
Misunderstood as a career in cutting grass, turf grass management is a science-based field that includes research about improving grasses as well as making athletic fields safer to prevent injuries. It has high job placement and students intern at places like Fenway Park and Wimbledon. But the traditional pipeline of students is dry.
Students like Mitchell Riffey, a sophomore who decided on turf grass because of working at Holston Hills Country Club, are now rare when they used to be common. Fewer high school students have jobs at golf courses and that means less visibility for the career, faculty said. Colleagues at other university turf programs had already experienced an enrollment dip when it became noticeable about two years ago at UT, Horvath said. At the time, there were 18 students in the UT program and two-thirds were juniors and seniors. That meant only six underclassmen for future course offerings, Horvath said.
But the students were still out there, and with advice from advertising agency Tombras Group, Horvath said the program decided to make room in the budget for a communications coordinator. Boyle, who worked in Navy communications, ramped up social media and also applied the Navy’s strategies to find SEAL and special warfare candidates.
“We not only want more students, but the right students that will finish the program,” he said.
Using an annual survey of students and recent alumni, Boyle searched for what turf students had in common beyond summer jobs. He found turf students like science, played sports in high school and grew up around golf courses and other sports fields. They know that they are not going to play sports in college, but join intramural teams, continue to watch sports and want a career in a related area, Boyle said.
And that’s why the program has borrowed slogans like “stay in the game,” he said. Boyle said he’s also noticed a growing interest on the environmental safety aspects from potential students. So to find these students, Boyle is going to the typical places like career fairs, but also wants to go to atypical places like golf tournaments and other high school sports tournaments as well as meet with high school coaches.
He also wants more high school classes to visit UT — a visit from one science class last year led to at least one student enrolling in the program. The goal is to reach students, but also their parents and coaches, he said. And the enrollment increase is already evident, Horvath said. Class size is growing and the turf club is starting again because there are students to keep it going. And he hopes enrollment continues to grow to around 50.
Riffey said he was led to the turf concentration by working at the country club, but also enjoys the research aspect. And ultimately, it’s a career where the sophomore said he can work outside and have something to show of it.
“You get to see the results of your work,” Riffey said.
AP Science students visit the UT Turfgrass Team
April 7, 2015
Students from Anderson County, Tennessee’s Powell High School visited the University of Tennessee’s Turfgrass Science and Management professors and students at the East Tennessee Research and Education Center to learn about the turf program. The 17 Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science students performed several experiments exploring putting green speed and consistency tests, turf hardness research, and turf core samples.
“The high school students had a chance to interact with professors and grad students via hands-on activities in small groups,” said Will Roberts, Powell High School AP Environmental Science teacher. “The activities allowed for each of the students to be engaged and use some of the equipment rather than just simply be shown the equipment on a passing tour.”
The visit, designed as a hands-on event rather than a standard tour of the facility, challenged the students to record data, come up with theories, and explain their reasoning.
“As the high school students worked with the professors and grad students, there were discussions about the activities, programs, majors, and career opportunities on a personal level that would not have been as easy for a large group, question-answer session,” Roberts said. “While they were simple activities, the high school students left this field trip feeling as though they worked with a professor rather than simply being on a tour.”
For the turf staff, the visit was much more than a tour. It allowed for the kind of interaction most often seen in a college lab.
“It was great to have these engaged high school students out there learning that science is a living, evolving thing,” said Brandon Horvath, Associate Professor Turfgrass Science and Management.
The idea for the hands-on visit came about after the UT Turfgrass team talked with Powell High School leadership at a college fair last fall.