Although its resume is teeming with positive features, the Department of Grain Science and Industry at Kansas State University (KSU) still faces some challenges.
Established in 1905, the department has catapulted the careers of many in the milling and baking industries. It is the only university in the United States that offers degrees in baking, feed or milling science and management and holds a 100% job placement rate — with students typically receiving multiple job offers upon graduation.
Despite increasing demand for qualified students, departmental enrollment has not substantially grown for about seven years.
“I would tell you no one — including me — thinks that number is right,” said Gordon Smith, Ph.D., head of KSU’s Grain Science and Industry department. “The industry could hire twice as many students out of the department easily.”
But finding students who are familiar with the program and sector is a struggle. Saddled in the small town of Manhattan, Kansas, U.S., it remains a hidden gem.
“I believe a major barrier for students is simply awareness about what the department does and the quality of careers that are possible by this type of education,” Smith said.
Made up of three undergraduate programs — Bakery Science & Management, Feed Science & Management, and Milling Science & Management — plus a graduate program in Grain Science, the department is dedicated to cultivating a well-rounded curriculum that prepares students for the workforce. By operating in tandem with its faculty and advisory council, it continuously reinvents itself to meet students’ evolving needs.
At the forefront of the program is its hands-on training and technical preparation the faculty provides. Throughout all disciplines, professors prepare students with the technical expertise they need to be successful. From research and analytical laboratories to processing equipment, students learn about the latest advances in grain science in a functional setting.
While traditional skills and concepts are covered throughout courses, staff provide students with a new, international perspective that aligns with the increasingly globalized milling and baking industries.
“One of the criticisms of the department is that all of our students are from Kansas, but that, of course, isn’t true,” Smith said. Many of the department’s instructors have experience working outside of the United States and bring that valuable expertise back to KSU’s students, even emboldening them to take jobs abroad upon graduation. Smith noted that as students become more interested in this global connectivity, they search far and wide for job opportunities that meet their needs.
The department’s advisory council has been a critical tool that provides industry perspective on programs, facilities and student readiness for the workplace. Made up of industry leaders from across bakery, milling and feed sectors, the Department of Grain Science’s Advisory Council has become an indispensable asset in guiding the strategy for the department, Smith said.
With help from these industry professionals, the department teaches leadership and communication skills that students can’t glean from a textbook.
“You can sit in a classroom and learn a bunch of grain science and technology, but when you leave, how are you going to be able to clearly communicate those concepts with business people?” Smith asked.
These soft-skill concepts are taught across a number of courses and in a capstone class, which Smith co-teaches with Charles Stark.
“We try to present our students with real-life industry situations,” Smith said. “The students already learned the technical skills but, in this course, they will learn to apply them in a business setting.”
The committee also empowers students by opening doors to new internship opportunities that provide a wealth of experience. Because of the demand for new talent within the industry, KSU students can begin internships during their freshman year. By graduation, many have completed up to three internships with different companies. In return, this allows the department to recruit top-tier students.
“I don’t think people realize how competitive it is to get KSU grain science interns,” said Robb MacKie, advisory council chairman and president and chief executive officer of the American Bakers Association (ABA). “About once a year, I am joined by an (ABA) board member for an advisory council meeting. They come back and immediately start reworking their internship program to accommodate those students and make it more competitive and attractive to them.”
The department’s close ties with the milling and baking industries also enables students to attend educational and networking events outside of school.
“Students from the program attend industry conferences to learn more about real-world opportunities, supplement their classroom work and network with their future peers,” MacKie said. “For instance, many of the baking science students will attend the American Society of Baking’s annual convention and the International Baking Industry Exposition and starting this fall will attend the ABA Technical Conference in Indianapolis.”
New recruiting strategies
As the department becomes more in tune with students and offers new opportunities, it still faces the enrollment issue. With this in mind, the department and the advisory committee have been re-examining outreach strategies to meet modern students’ demands.
Recent strategies include capitalizing on events such as campus open houses, which provide potential students with hands-on exposure. From baking demonstrations to mill tours, high school students can get a realistic feel for what the school has to offer. Smith explained that these visits highlight how KSU’s programs offer a highly focused and engaging educational experience. In continuing this effort, the department plans to target even younger students in junior high and elementary school to raise awareness about the industry.
Meanwhile, the highly engaged faculty connects with students and promotes the department.
“We want people who are technically deep and can relate to students,” Smith said. He noted that the milling science program saw increased enrollment after recruiting instructors directly from the industry who were energetic, passionate and able to interact with students in an approachable way.
“Continued focus on students is really the key to growth in all of our programs,” Smith said.
Despite the challenges, the future is bright.
“The best times of the department are not behind us, they’re ahead of us,” Smith said. “The needs of the industry are greater than they have ever been for food safety, employee safety and product innovation. And those targeted needs drive dependence on well-educated young people who possess hard and soft skills that will allow them to make an impact in the workplace quickly. I think it’s a great time to be a student at Kansas State and I only see that getting better.”
Communicating that optimism and hope can propel KSU’s Grain Science program forward. Smith invites members of the baking industry to relay their stories about the joy and success it has brought them, so others can contribute to its growth and mission.
MacKie also urged the industry members to visit the university and observe its inner workings.
“Come out to Manhattan,” he said. “Spend some time with the students and Smith, and then go back and tell its story to companies and local communities.”