College and University Turfgrass Programs: Virginia Tech
The following is the next in our series delving into colleges and universities that offer programs devoted to turfgrass management, turfgrass science, and related disciplines. In this edition, we examine the turfgrass program at Virginia Tech.
The Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences offers a four-year Bachelor of Science degree for Turfgrass Science majors; and Virginia Tech’s Ag Tech program is a two-year associate degree program that offers a Landscape and Turfgrass option.
“We have a number of students working at local golf courses and the athletic facilities on campus helping out on all of the VT athletic fields,” said Dan Sandor, Ph.D., collegiate assistant professor, turfgrass science, Virginia Tech. “So, they get hands-on experience with the staff here and get credit hours out of it.”
According to Sandor, students in the Turfgrass Club have the opportunity to attend the SFMA Conference and the GCSAA conference.
“Turfgrass Club members also participate in an annual golf tournament each spring with turfgrass students from the University of Maryland,” he said. “Both 2-year and 4-year students are able to be members of the Turfgrass Club. We also combine the two-year students and the four-year students in the Advanced Turfgrass class to allow the sophomores in the Ag Tech program to connect and learn with their peers in the four-year program.”
Sandor added, “Many of our 4-year students have transferred into the bachelor’s degree program from community college, due to the university’s challenging academic requirements for high school seniors to be directly admitted into the turfgrass science major as a freshman,” he said. “We encourage students to attend community college to get their gen eds out of the way while living at home and work at a local golf course and gain some hands-on instruction in turf management.”
Virginia Tech works with the Virginia Community College System to offer a guaranteed route to admission for students earning transferable credits or their associate degrees. Students in the Ag Tech turf management program also have the opportunity to transfer into the 4-year turfgrass science program after earning their 2-year degree.
According to Sandor, students in the Virginia Tech Turfgrass program are a mix of students pursuing careers in sports field management, golf course maintenance, lawn and landscaping, and even sod production.
“We’ve had two SFMA scholarship winners in back-to-back years,” he said. “A lot of students played sports in high school and knew they weren’t going to make it, so being involved in the SFMA is a way they get to stay in sports.”
When it comes to getting high school students interested in pursuing a turfgrass degree, Virginia Tech is in a bit of a unique position, as 17 schools in the state of Virginia offer turfgrass education at the high school level.
Such programs include Brentsville District High School in Nokesville, Virginia, directed by Drew Miller; Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Virginia, directed by Marc Moran, CSFM; and Louisa County High School in Mineral, Virginia, directed by Logan Horne. These programs are not only offering turfgrass education at the high school level, but they are winning national awards for their athletic fields and their sports field management practices.
“These kids are taking solid green industry classes, and the students are involved with the upkeep and maintenance of their fields,” said Sandor. “I visited both Marc and Logan’s programs a couple weeks ago, and the students mow the fields and mark the fields; they have big shops to house the equipment; and they have the opportunity to learn how to adjust and sharpen reels and bedknives; as well as service and repair small-engine equipment.”
According to Sandor, a driving factor for those opportunities is Virginia’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. If Ag teachers want to offer a turfgrass class, the Virginia Department of Education provides the CTE requirements and the plan of study for curriculum such as Introduction to Turfgrass and/or Advanced Turfgrass. As a result, some of the larger high school programs in Virginia have 100 to 200 students who are taking some sort of turfgrass class.
“Every time I visit one of these programs, I’m impressed,” said Sandor. “Students are learning turf-management concepts in their classes, and directly applying this practical knowledge in maintaining their high school fields. They are able to share with their parents that they painted the end zone that week or that they helped get the infield skin ready for a softball game – so it’s a wonderful and unique opportunity for these students.”
Sandor added that Virginia Tech also attracts students to its turfgrass program through on-campus events in conjunction with 4-H and FFA – including a hands-on sports field management workshop at the annual 4-H congress and a turfgrass management career development event at the annual FFA convention.
“I’m on the Virginia SFMA Board, and we have started doing regional field days, which has helped get the word out to high schools,” said Sandor. “We are really trying to maximize these regional opportunities to promote sports-field management BMPs with coaches, Ag-Ed teachers and athletic directors, and increase our engagement with their students at these events.”
Sandor added that the Virginia Tech faculty, staff, mentors and alumni network combine to set it apart from other schools.
“All of the faculty members are heavily involved in the success of our students,” he said. “We have a 14-member team comprised of faculty and research staff (not including grad students), and many sports field managers and golf course superintendents in the region who mentor students and provide experiential-learning and employment opportunities. We have a wide network of alumni all over the world working in the turfgrass industry. There is outstanding support for our students; you can’t go far without running into a Hokie.”
SportsField Management magazine will detail other college and university turfgrass programs in coming issues. If you would like your school profiled, please contact John Kmitta email@example.com 763-383-4405.