Internships Accelerate Career Interests for Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department Students

Josh Ihnen at Precision Planting
Junior precision agriculture student Josh Ihnen has worked as a research agronomy intern for Precision Planting this summer in Tremont, Illinois.

For junior precision agriculture student Josh Ihnen, agriculture was not exactly where he thought he would find a career for himself. However, the combination of being drawn to the industry through his cousin’s family farm and his love for understanding how things work helped the nontraditional student from Tulare, South Dakota, realize that precision agriculture was the perfect path for him. Gaining hands-on experience as a research agronomy intern for Precision Planting this summer has further confirmed that the career field is the right fit for him.

“Prior to this experience, I was undecided on what area was right for me to focus on,” Ihnen said. “I have been able to centralize what area of agriculture I am most interested in for the future.”

Precision Planting is a subsidiary of AGCO Corporation with operations based out of Tremont, Illinois. As part of his internship, Ihnen has been able to jump into various aspects of precision agriculture, from working in a research and development department installing, troubleshooting and testing planter accessories that have not yet been released to the public to assessing stand counts for corn and soybeans across central Illinois, or even traveling to Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi to work with regional dealers on cotton stand counts with various planter configurations. 

Ihnen recognizes that without SDSU and its precision agriculture program, he would not have been equipped to understand the technology he works with every day during his internship. Applying this information gained in the classroom in a real-world experience is something that Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department Head Van Kelley finds incredibly important to student education.

“We have to get students to see how classroom theory connects with how they will use those skills on the job,” Kelley said. “After a student has done an internship, they have a lot more focus on what they want to learn back on campus, and it certainly gives them more context on what they still need to learn.”

Ihnen sets up a sprayer coverage plot.
Ihnen sets up a sprayer coverage plot.

The Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department requires undergraduate students pursuing degrees in agricultural and biosystems engineering, agricultural systems technology and precision agriculture, a shared major with the Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science Department, to complete two internship credits before graduation. Over 40 students in the department interned with companies in several states this summer. With agriculture being deemed an essential industry, many companies maintained their summer internship programs while employing more safety protocols to ensure interns and employees remained healthy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which also meant that SDSU students could still fulfill their internship credit requirement this summer rather than delaying it another summer.

“Internships are where students get to explore their career options,” Stephanie Bebensee, academic advisor and program coordinator for the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, said. “The internship experience provides students an opportunity to further develop soft skills like communication, teamwork, problem solving, adaptability and leadership and to build their professional network.”

A unique part of the department’s internship requirement includes the implementation of faculty supervisors into the students’ summer experiences. There are currently nine faculty members supervising summer interns, one of which includes Douglas Prairie, an instructor who is advising nine students this summer, including Ihnen. 

As a faculty supervisor, Prairie’s main role is to establish a relationship with both the student and their site supervisor. During a typical summer, Prairie would visit the student’s internship location to check in with them, but due to COVID-19, he has video called his students and their site supervisors to ensure the student is successfully completing their internship credits.

Prairie has observed many students obtain full-time positions with the same company the students interned with.

“Having not had internships with those companies, our students might not have been hired,” Prairie said. “Many of the companies we place students at utilize their internship programs to recruit high quality talent. If they already have experience with our students, they often want to maintain a relationship with them once they graduate.”

This is not the first time SDSU has received recognition for its precision agriculture program. Having the first bachelor of science degree in precision agriculture in the nation, the university continues to prepare students to lead the evolution of technology needed to ensure farm profitability and ecosystem sustainability. Soon, undergraduate students’ learning experiences will be further enhanced at SDSU through the Raven Precision Agriculture Center, a 129,000-square-foot building on the northwest edge of campus that will provide new opportunities for laboratory and classroom capabilities.

“I’m really excited about the space we will have,” Kelley said. “This will be the first time in many generations we will be able to have hands-on laboratory experiences with full-sized equipment every month of the year.”

With construction on the Raven Precision Agriculture Center scheduled to conclude in summer 2021, the department will welcome students to the new facility in time for fall 2021 classes. 

While the new building will open the door for many more opportunities, students continue to prove the importance of internship experiences in addition to their knowledge built in SDSU classrooms.

“My summer internship has been a very important part of my education,” Ihnen said. “Now I am certain that the precision agriculture degree path is the right one for me.”