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Precision ag books disseminate research, improve students’ skills

students in precision ag class
Two new books, Practical Mathematics for Precision Farming and Precision Agriculture Basics, will help students improve their skills in precision agriculture. The books disseminate research findings and help fill knowledge gaps SDSU researchers identified by surveying agribusiness employers and precision ag faculty nationwide.

When it comes to precision agriculture, South Dakota State University faculty are not only generating new knowledge but also disseminating their findings and those of other researchers through two new textbooks. 

To determine whether the skills being taught in the classroom fulfill industry needs, Distinguished Professor Sharon Clay, Professor David Clay and Assistant Professor Stephanie Bruggeman of the Department of Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science surveyed agribusiness employers and precision agriculture faculty nationwide. Based on those results, they compiled two new textbooks that will help improve the skills of precision ag students across the country.

David Clay
David Clay

Practical Mathematics for Precision Farming helps students apply mathematics to practical farming situations, while The Precision Agriculture Basics covers topics from geographic information science basics to yield monitoring and environmental implications of precision agriculture. The books, published through the American Society of Agronomy, Crops Science Society and Soil Science Societies of America, are available at https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/precision-curriculum.

Bruggeman, who is the grant coordinator, called the writing of these books “a huge group effort involving the best internationally known ag scientists in the world.” More than 7,000 copies of the basics book and more than 5,000 copies of the mathematics book have been downloaded. More than 400 hard copies have also been sold.

The SDSU researchers secured a four-year, $680,000 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Higher Education Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to carry out the survey, develop curriculum modules with the most current research results, compile the books and hold a precision ag educators’ workshop.

Sharon Clay
Sharon Clay

Their precision ag research is also supported with matching funding by the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. SDSU is the first land-grant institution to offer both a major and a minor in precision agriculture.

Comparing industry needs with curriculum

In the survey, employers described the kinds of positions they had and what kinds of skills people need in those positions. Of the 171 industry respondents, 53 percent were retail businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

Overall, about 35 percent of the employees at these businesses worked on precision agriculture practices. One third of the positions were in agronomy, while more than one-fourth were equipment operators. The results are described in the September issue of Natural Sciences Education.

The 25 faculty respondents teach at 22 different institutions, evenly divided between four-year and two-year programs.  Faculty described the types of jobs for which they are preparing students and the precision ag curriculum. The results are published in the spring 2018 Journal of Agribusiness.

Honing precision ag skills

“We compared what employers are looking for and what we’re teaching,” David Clay explained. Bruggeman said the survey showed that “employees were missing some basic skills, which these books are designed to fill.” 

One of those areas is in applied mathematics. “The assumption is you know how to do this, but the reality is the problems are more complicated than they look,” David Clay said. For example, when given a flow rate of 5 gallons per minute and a 20-acre field, students need to determine how many gallons of herbicide they will need.

Sharon Clay said, “Students just multiply the numbers together without considering the units.” In addition, there can be many ways to solve the same problem. As an example, she came up with six different ways to solve a given problem.  “And they are all correct,” she added. “Students need to learn to use what makes the most sense.”

David Clay said, “It’s easy to make mistakes working through the calculations.” Those mistakes can be costly.

“If you spray too much, you can burn up the crop, but if you spray too little, it will not be effective,” he explained.  “The challenge is to do basic calculations associated with your profession.”

Bruggeman said, “I lent the math book to a Crop Production student last year who was struggling with some basic concepts. When she returned it, she said, ‘Every student should have this book!’”

Of the 23 experts who wrote chapters, 14 are from South Dakota State. Bruggeman and David and Sharon Clay, who teach classes in precision ag, edited the book and contributed content. The SDSU researchers plan to use practical mathematics book for a new 200-level course.

David Clay was an editor for the Precision Agriculture Basics book. Researchers and scientists from 13 states and five countries helped write the book, which has links to 65 videos that further explain precision ag concepts. Five SDSU faculty contributed content.

In May, precision ag faculty from 20 institutions attended a workshop, which featured experts who had authored chapters for the books, at Colorado State University. Two precision ag companies, Raven Industries and Trimble, also donated equipment and/or funding for the workshop.

“We’re hoping to encourage them to incorporate the materials into their class,” Bruggeman said. Participants received a complimentary copy of each book and partial reimbursement for travel expenses through the USDA grant.