Clark was with the BiState School of Food Science Washington State University, PO Box 646376, Pullman WA, 99164–6376, U.S.A. when the research was conducted.
Research in Food Science Education
Career Preparedness Survey Outcomes of Food Science Graduates—A Follow-Up Assessment
Article first published online: 6 APR 2012
© 2012 Institute of Food Technologists®
Journal of Food Science Education
Volume 11, Issue 2, pages 8–15, April 2012
How to Cite
Bohlscheid, J. and Clark, S. (2012), Career Preparedness Survey Outcomes of Food Science Graduates—A Follow-Up Assessment. Journal of Food Science Education, 11: 8–15. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-4329.2011.00139.x
- Issue published online: 6 APR 2012
- Article first published online: 6 APR 2012
- MS 20110949 Submitted 8/4/2011, Accepted 12/5/2011.
Abstract: Fifty-eight recent graduates (1998–2008) from the joint Washington State University (WSU) and University of Idaho (UI) BiState School of Food Science program and 27 of their employers participated in a survey assessing learning outcomes based on the 2001 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) core competencies for undergraduate food science programs. Parallel web-based survey instruments for the graduates and employers using the WSU Skylight Matrix Survey System© were employed to assess the attitudes of the respondents to the frequency of usage of IFT defined skills and the adequacy of the graduates’ preparation from the program. Graduates responded that they were generally satisfied with their education; however, they reported lower rates of adequate or better preparation in Success Skill involving group dynamics, processing and engineering skills, and government regulations. Most of these skills were also the least frequently used by graduates in their careers. Success Skills were the most frequently performed competencies, while food microbiology and safety, and some engineering and processing skills were used less frequently by graduates of the Food Science program. Greater than 80% of the employers reported that the graduates’ performance was adequate or better in all skill areas. The assessment suggested program improvement since a similar survey in 2004, but also illuminated areas for improvement in teaching and learning, particularly in light of the revised IFT 2011 Guidelines. Specifically, graduates and employers emphasized the need for more course work that weaves critical thinking skills, group dynamics, and government regulations into the classroom. Graduates also highlighted the importance of internships and extracurricular activities for career preparation.
Program assessment of specific learning outcomes is a major component of the 2001 Educational Standards implemented by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT 2001), and those of the updated 2011 Standards (Iwaoka 2011). To meet the needs of students and employers, a systematic feedback loop is necessary to evaluate the efficacy of a program of study and provide information on specific deficiencies (IFT 2009). One such mechanism involves surveying the graduates of the program and those employing them with respect to the core competencies explicated in the IFT Educational Standard. As part of the joint Washington State University (WSU) and University of Idaho (UI) BiState School of Food Science program assessment system, a survey of the attitudes of graduates and their employers toward adequate food science educational preparation and the application of learned skills in their careers was conducted in 2004 (Clark and others 2006). The survey, based on the 42 learning outcome competencies in the IFT 2001 Education Standards, sampled those graduating from before 1997 and up to 2004, and assessed the longitudinal success of meeting the IFT learning outcomes.
The 2004 survey uncovered areas for improvement in the WSU/UI program. The graduates were generally satisfied with their food science education, believing that they were particularly well prepared for their jobs in the areas of critical thinking, communication, and teamwork. However, discrepancies between student perceptions and actual preparedness in technical competencies, according to their employers, came to light in the study. The graduates reported greater percentages of adequate or better preparation than their employers reported in Food Chemistry and Analysis and Food Safety and Microbiology competencies. These findings suggested that students should be given opportunities for greater self-evaluation in undergraduate courses. In unstructured comments, students and employers stressed the need for program improvements in Success Skills, as defined by IFT (detailed in Table 3). The terms “Workplace Competencies and Foundations” or “Generic Skills” has been used by other authors in various fields throughout the world (Hager and others 2002; SCANS 1991; NCVER 2003), and relates well to what IFT calls Success Skills. The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (2003) in Australia indicated that there is no one authoritative list of generic skills, but each list tends to include the following elements: (1) basic/fundamental skills; (2) people-related skills; (3) conceptual/thinking skills; (4) personal skills and attributes; (5) skills related to the business world; and (6) skills related to the community.
|Proportion (%) weekly or more oftenc||Proportion (%) adequate or betterd (N/Ae)|
|Defining problems, identifying potential causes and possible solutions||91.2||88.9||89.6||92.6|
|Application of critical thinking to new situations||92.1||85.1||89.7||88.9|
|Opportunities to apply high standards of professional integrity and ethical values||81.0||85.2||84.5||92.6|
|Opportunities to continually educate oneself||61.0||55.6||96.6||88.9|
|Work effectively with others||96.6||96.3||91.4||92.6|
|Deal with individual and/or group conflict||55.1||51.9||70.7||85.2|
|Independently research scientific and nonscientific information||60.3||53.3||84.5||92.6|
|Manage time effectively||100||92.6||86.2||88.9|
|Manage group projects, run meetings, chair committees, etc.||55.1||48.2||67.2b||88.9a|
|Food Chemistry and Analysis Knowledge and Skills|
|Understand chemistry underlying properties + reactions of various food components||43.3||70.4||94.8||qm|
|Apply knowledge of food chemistry to control reactions in foods||44.2||48.2||93.1||96.3|
|Understand major chemical reactions that limit shelf life in foods||43.1||63.0||91.4||92.6|
|Laboratory techniques common to basic and applied food chemistry||62.1||48.2||87.9||92.6|
|Principles behind analytical techniques associated with food||46.1||55.6||81.0||92.6|
|Identify appropriate analytical technique for a practical problem||37.3||44.4||82.8||92.6|
|Practical proficiency in a food analysis laboratory||48.3||37.0||84.5||92.6|
|Food Safety and Microbiology Knowledge and Skills|
|Identification (ID) of the important pathogens and spoilage microorganisms in foods and the conditions under which they will grow||42.3||37.0||91.4||88.9|
|ID of conditions under which pathogens are commonly inactivated or made harmless in foods||48.3||33.3||93.1||92.6|
|Utilization of laboratory techniques to identify microorganisms in foods||29.3||25.9||89.4||92.6|
|Explanation or application of principles involving food preservation via fermentation processes||17.24||25.9||86.2||92.6|
|Understanding of microbial inactivation, adaptation and environmental factors on growth and response of microorganisms in various environments||43.1||33.3||91.4||85.2|
|ID of conditions, including sanitation, under which pathogens and spoilage microorganisms are commonly inactivated or made harmless in foods||48.8||55.5||91.4||92.6|
|Food Processing and Engineering Knowledge and Skills|
|ID of source and variability of raw food materials and description of their impact on food processing operations||56.9||59.3||77.6||85.2|
|Understanding of and application of methods to control deterioration and spoilage||50.0||51.8||87.9||88.9|
|Principles that make a food product safe for consumption||67.2||63.0||91.4||88.9|
|Transport processes and unit operations in food processing, conceptually and in practical laboratory settings||53.4||37.0||74.1||88.9|
|Mass energy balances for a given food process||17.2||14.8||65.5b||92.6a|
|Unit operations required to produce a given food product||32.8||40.7||67.2b||92.6a|
|Principles and current practices of processing techniques and the effects of processing parameters on product quality||41.3||59.3||79.3||88.9|
|Properties and uses of various packaging materials||20.7||40.7||55.2b||88.9a|
|Basic principles and practices of cleaning and sanitation in food processing operations||43.1||59.3||77.6||85.2|
|Requirements for water utilization and waste management in food and food processing||24.1||22.2||44.8b||81.5a|
|Applied Food Science and Skills|
|Applications of principles of food science in practical, real-world situations and problems||75.9||81.5||87.9||96.3|
|Use of computers to solve food science problems||69.0||66.7||72.4||92.6|
|Application of statistical principles to food science applications||44.8||37.0||79.3||88.9|
|Applications of principles of food science to control and assure the quality of food products||72.4||70.3||91.4||96.3|
|Explanation and application of basic principles of sensory analysis||53.4||55.6||72.4||92.6|
|ID and discussion of current topics of importance to the food industry||50.0||44.5||81.0||85.2|
|Application of government regulations required for the manufacture and sale of food products||48.3||44.4||58.6b||85.2a|
To address the issues raised in 2004, and to improve technical competencies of the students, attention was paid to more adequately measure critical thinking skills in several core classes throughout the WSU/UI food science curriculum. This is a separate program and will be discussed in a future report by these authors. Additionally, the graduates in the 2004 survey requested more training in government regulations, practical applications to food science, and the use of statistics.
As part of the teaching-learning-assessment cycle, review of the efficacy of program modifications and corrective measure is necessary (Soundarajan 2004). Indeed, by assessing outcomes of our students in their careers, we not only monitor student learning, but encourage and shape the type of learning desired of our future students by academia and industry (Huba and Freed 2000). This work summarizes and analyzes on the results of a subsequent survey of graduates from the WSU/UI program and their employers conducted over the winter of 2008.
Materials and Methods
This study targeted alumni receiving baccalaureate degrees from 1998 to 2008. Those graduates for which the investigators had e-mail addresses were contacted by e-mail and invited to participate in an online survey about their educational experience in the undergraduate food science program at WSU or UI. The e-mail address database was originally developed from the university alumni organizations, college, and departmental databases. Gaps in contact information were filled as much as possible by employing alumni-alumni contacts and social networking systems such as Facebook and MySpace. In total, 87 graduates were invited to participate in the survey, based upon current alumni records. The survey was conducted completely online, using Skylight Matrix Survey System©, a WSU-based system. The system used blind-coding in order that data could not be connected to individuals. Each panelist had an individual URL, which provided him or her access to the survey. Skylight Matrix Survey System© also enabled the investigators to send reminder messages to potential panelists who had not yet participated.
To obtain employer e-mail addresses, alumni were asked to provide the investigators with the contact information for supervisors. Supervisors were then contacted by e-mail and invited to participate in the online survey using the same Skylight Matrix Survey System©. As with the employees, all employers were blind-coded and provided with individual URL access.
Upon completion of the study, the list of actual participants was utilized to randomly select four winners (a WSU alumnus, a UI alumnus, a WSU employer and a UI employer) of a can of Cougar Gold cheese, a Cheddar-type cheese produced at WSU.
Employee and employer questionnaires were essentially the same; employees were asked to respond with their perceptions about their level of training for their career, while employers were asked to comment on their perception of the employees’ preparedness. The survey questions utilized in this study, based on the IFT core educational competencies, were the same as the initial study (Clark and others 2006), except that the additional write-in question “Did you feel unprepared for use of any equipment, technology or material that your job required of you? If yes, please explain.” was added to address our concern about suitability of our facilities. Additional less structured cues were provided for written responses.
Binary responses were analyzed by the chi-square test for comparison of 2 populations, a 2-tailed test, using a significance level of 0.05. Logit analysis, with a 95% confidence interval, was performed to determine probability of statement relationships. Both analyses were performed using XLSTAT Statistical Software (Addinsoft USA, NY)
Results and Discussion
Survey methods and protocols
The 87 graduates contacted by e-mail to participate in this survey represent approximately 92% of the Food Science graduates from 1998 to 2008. Of those 87, 58 graduates (67%) completed the online survey. The response rate for the current study was on the high side of the reported range of 24% to 76% in e-mail based surveys (Sue and Ritter 2007). A survey conducted by the Rochester Inst. of Technology's Dept. of Economics with an identical pool size reported an 85% response rate using a combination of e-mail, paper mail, and phone interviews (RIT 2009).
Since graduates who were invited to take part in the survey were also asked to provide names and e-mail addresses of their supervisor, only supervisors of those participating in the survey were included in the study. All alumni active in the food processing industry or who were currently graduate students provided supervisor contact information. In some cases the identified supervisor oversaw a number of alumni, both UI and WSU, thus reducing the number of responding employers. Non-response can bias surveys, as well as an aversion to web-bases surveys, however these are difficult to control for in voluntary studies (Sills and Song 2002).
In total, 36 employers of graduates who participated in the survey were invited to participate. Of those, 27 employers (75%) participated in the online survey. This study's response rate was particularly high compared to Nair and Mertova (2009), who conducted a graduate employer survey of 2,753 companies in Australia by means of telephone, e-mail and mail-outs, but had a 17% response rate over a 4-mo period. The authors stressed the need for a well-sourced database of employers of the institution's graduates, established relations with industry and professional bodies, adequate staffing, and awareness of timelines suitable for individual employers to complete a survey. Confounding issues in using e-mail based surveys are the accuracy of the respondent's e-mail address and antispam blocking software used for corporate e-mail accounts.
The current results support the findings that the ease of an internet-based survey system can increase participation rates (Hoonaker and Carayon 2009), however there is conflicting evidence on the effectiveness of incentives on response rates (Baruch and Brooks 2008; Cook and others 2000; Hoonaker and Carayon 2009; Sheehan 2001). In the current study, the high response rate may partially be attributed to the fact that many of the graduates and employers had previously interacted with the authors and maintained some loyalty to them and the School of Food Science program (Cook and other 2000; Sheehan 2001).
Employers were asked to indicate the number of individuals they supervised that had earned BS degrees from WSU or UI over the past 10 y. These individuals served as the graduates represented in the pool of responses by employers. Regarding the distribution of supervision demographics, 30% of the employer respondents did not supervise WSU graduates, 30% supervised one WSU graduate, 26% supervised 2 to 5 graduates, and 7% supervised 10 or more graduates. Regarding UI graduates, 41% of employer respondents supervised none, 33% supervised 1, and 18% supervised 2 to 4 graduates. Thus, employer evaluations of approximately 48 WSU graduates and 25 UI graduates, for a total of 73 School of Food Science graduates, are included in this report.
Table 1 presents the post-graduation career tracks of WSU and UI BS alumni. Twenty-six percent of the graduates attended graduate school after completing their degrees, with an additional 57% finding employment within the food industry. The primary employment positions for graduates, depending upon year of employment, are Product Development, Quality assurance/Quality Control, Processing/Production, and Research and Development. The reported employment position distributions are similar to the national trends reported by the most recent employment surveys of the IFT membership (Mermelstein 2008, 2010). In 2009, 67% of IFT respondents reported current employment in R&D/Scientific/Technical positions, 8% in management, and 9% in academia. In addition, 27% and 25% of those surveyed by IFT, respectively, had MS and/or PhD degrees.
|Time of employment||Employment position|
|Unemployed||Nonfood Science||Acad or Staff||Grad School||R&D||Product Develop||QA/QC||Processing/Production||Manag’t||Sales||Gov’t||Engineering||Other|
|Within 1 y||2||5||0||25||10||17||15||15||2||2||0||0||2|
Perceptions of satisfaction
The primary objective of this study was to assess the perceived satisfaction levels of the WSU/UI food science program by graduates and their employers. A secondary objective was to determine if there had been changes in levels of satisfaction from a survey performed previously (Clark and others 2004). Graduates generally expressed high satisfaction (>90%) with their food science education (Table 2). The alumni reported positive relationships with faculty, staff, and advisors. There was general agreement of the current study's results with the education satisfaction results of the previous survey in 2004 (Clark and others 2004), however the three statements with <90% agreement will be address later in this article.
|Statement||Frequency of agreement with statement (%)|
|1. I am satisfied with my WSU/UI food science education||93||100|
|2. As a student, I had adequate access to faculty||98||96|
|3. My food science education provided me a broad food science background||92||96|
|4. Student suggestions to improve the food science program were taken seriously||55||61|
|5. The food science curriculum provided useful perspectives on critical issues facing the profession||71b*||93a|
|6. The quality of my interactions with College administrative and support services were satisfactory||92||86|
|7. My food science advisor was available when I needed him/her||93||96|
|8. My advisor provided valuable curriculum and career guidance||90||93|
|9. Opportunities to participate in a variety of food science extracurricular activities were provided||90||96|
|10. I took advantage of extracurricular food science activities (tours, food science club, food product development, dairy products evaluation, etc.)||79b*||96a|
Use of food science educational content in current career
Table 3 presents a summary of graduate and employer impressions of how often knowledge and/or skills are utilized regularly on the job. Less that 50% of graduates reported using the fundamental knowledge and skills associated with Food Chemistry and, Food Safety and Microbiology, and Food Processing and Engineering on a weekly or more frequent basis. Knowledge and skills used most often (more than 50% of respondents use weekly or more often) were “Laboratory techniques common to basic and applied food chemistry”, “Identifying sources and variability of raw foods …”, “Principles that make a food safe for consumption”, and “Transport processes and unit operations …”. The knowledge and skills used least frequently (less than 30% use weekly or more often) were “Utilization of laboratory techniques to identify microorganisms in food”, “Explanation or application of principles involving food preservation through fermentation”, “Mass-energy balances for a given food process”, “Properties and uses of various packaging materials”, and “Requirements for water utilization and waste management …”. There was general agreement between the graduates and employers on the time spent on these competencies (P > 0.05).
Sixty percent of WSU/UI graduates used Applied Food Science Knowledge and Skills on average weekly or more often, in agreement with observations of their employers. The knowledge and skills cited for most use by the graduates (more than 69% use weekly or more often) were “Applications of principles of food science in practical, real-world situations and problems”, “Use of computers to solve food science problems”, and “Applications of principles of food science to control and assure the quality of food products”. The knowledge and skills least (less than 50% of respondents) cited for use were “Application of statistical principles …”, and “Application of government regulations …”
The lower rates of use of fundamental knowledge and skills can be explained by 2 factors. As the majority of the of alumni in the current study identified their positions outside of engineering and processing/production, many of the concepts and skill associated with these would be under emphasized in their day to day tasks. A more likely justification is that much of the foundational knowledge and skills gained in food chemistry, microbiology and processing coursework would be assumed and more salient when considered in light of survey questions relating to the application of these concepts to more tangible and practical aspects of one's duties. In future surveys refinement of these questions should be made to clarify potential confounding interpretations.
In contrast to the fundamental and applied food science knowledge and skills, most Success Skills were reportedly used by >80% of the graduates and employers on a weekly or more frequent basis. A recent survey of food industry representatives conducted by Purdue University found that Success Skills were the most important IFT competencies expected in a new BS graduate employee (Morgan and others 2006). Not surprisingly, the importance of skills gained beyond the college “standard content focused” curriculum competencies, including oral communication, written communication, public speaking, motivating and managing others, and effective group leadership has been reported for other scientific disciplines and professions as well (Hart 2008; Jagger and others 2001, NAE 2005, Zekeri 2004). Internationally, critical thinking skills, personal qualities, teamwork and communication skills are indicated as essential, and often more important than paper qualifications, for graduate employability (Gallup 2010, Leckey and McGuigan 1997; Shuib 2005). The employers surveyed by Hart (2008) also stressed that college transcripts are not particularly useful in helping to evaluate a job applicant's potential to succeed at their company. Much more useful were assessments to determine the graduates’ ability to apply their college learning to complex, real-world challenges, as well as projects or tests that integrate problem-solving, writing, and analytical reasoning skills.
Given the importance of complex interpersonal and self development skills for BS level employees, the survey provided interesting results. Success Skills used by <65% of the graduates, and noted by their employers, on a weekly or more frequent basis included “Opportunities to continually educate oneself”, “Independently research information …”, “Manage group projects …”, and “Deal with group conflict.” These results are generally consistent with the previous survey. These lower usage rates of the first three Success Skills, with a clustering of higher employment in product development, R&D and QA/QC positions, present an interesting dichotomy. One may observe that continuing education would be important in maintaining a competitive advantage in these employment positions. The IFT affirmed the importance of continuing education with the development of a Continuing Education Advisory Committee in 2006, which is responsible for the IFT's Knowledge & Learning center and educational programming (Heldman 2007). Employers may consider providing incentives for their employees to engage in continuing education opportunities to enhance their competitiveness.
Perceived adequacy of food science educational content for current career
Graduates and employers generally rated their preparation for their jobs as adequate or better as related to the 2001 IFT Education Standards core competencies. Table 3 also presents a summary of graduate and employer impressions of how well graduates were prepared for particular fundamental knowledge or skills, and their applications. A high percentage of graduates rated their preparation and ability in Food Chemistry and Analysis and Food Safety and Microbiology as adequate or better, with means close to 90%. These results were slightly lower than those of 2004 survey; however, in 2004 the results showed that the graduates rated their preparation significantly better than the ratings of the employers for most categories. In the current survey there were no significant differences in the perceived preparation for categories in Food Chemistry and Analysis and Food Safety and Microbiology. In Clark and others (2006) mean scores from employers (78%) were lower than the mean scores attained in this study (93%) for Food Chemistry and Analysis preparation and ability. Additionally, employer ratings for Food Safety and Microbiology preparation and ability in the initial study (62%) improved in this study (91%). These results suggest that, according to both graduates and employers, the WSU/UI program has improved and is meeting adequate preparation levels for these IFT core competencies.
The graduates rated their preparation in Food Processing and Engineering and Applied Food Science somewhat lower with respect to the other categories, with means of 72% to 78%. Specific competencies for which the graduates expressed weakness in preparation were “Mass-energy balances for a given food process”, “Unit operations required to produce a given food product”, “Requirements for water utilization …”, “Properties and uses of various packaging materials”, and “Application of government regulations for the manufacture and sale of food products”. The last three categories have be areas that the WSU/UI program has just recently begun to address. These reports of adequate preparation were significantly lower than those expressed by the employers, where the proportion of employers rating adequate or better was >80%. It is notable that these competencies are used relatively infrequently on the job, where less than 30% of the graduates reported using them on a weekly or more often basis.
Food Processing and Engineering mean ratings of adequate or better preparation by employers in the previous and current studies were similar: 76% to 79%. Improvements were seen in employer ratings for graduates’ preparation and ability in Applied Food Science from the initial study (74%) to this study (91%). Again these results suggest that, from the employers’ perspective, the WSU/UI program has improved and is adequately preparing employee for their careers with respect to these IFT core competencies.
With respect Success Skills, a mean of 85.8% of the alumni reported adequate or better preparation/ability compared to 95.7% in Clark and others (2006). The proportion of responses by employers of adequate or better preparation in Success Skills was more similar in the two studies, with means of 91%–95%. The two lowest rated competencies in 2008 (“dealing with conflict” and “manage group projects, run meeting, etc.”) were also the lowest in 2006, as well as the least frequently used in both surveys. In only one competency among the Success Skills did the graduates rate themselves significantly lower in terms of preparation than the rating of the employers: “Manage group projects, run meeting, etc.”. These results indicate that the food science program should develop learning experiences to better integrate competencies involving group dynamics into class projects.
A food science program needs to insure that it improves the level of integration and application of a wide range of experiences into the curriculum in order to maintain the competitiveness its food science students. The National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP 2007) compiled a list of “essential learning outcomes” educational outcomes that all students need from higher education. The list includes “knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world”, “intellectual and practical skills”, “personal and social responsibility”, and “integrative learning”. The list summarizes traits that hundreds of colleges, universities, and members of the business community cited as important for all students. The report stressed the need to foster and develop the essential learning outcomes across the entire educational experience and as well in the context of students’ major fields. The appendix of the document reported on the findings of Hart (2006), who revealed strong support among employers for increased emphasis on providing students with the set of essential learning outcomes recommended by LEAP.
Importance of experiential learning in the food science curriculum
One theme that persisted through the survey results was the importance of extracurricular activities and experiential learning opportunities. The alumni expressed general satisfaction with their educations in the current and previous surveys (Table 2), with the exception of lower agreements in 2008 with the statements “The food science curriculum provided useful perspectives on critical issues facing the profession” and “I took advantage of extracurricular food science activities”. These two responses were linked, as a yes response to the later significantly (P > 0.002) predicted a yes response to the former. Graduates in the 2008 survey also reported lower participation rates in extracurricular activities when compared to those of graduates in the 2004 survey. On 26 separate occasions the alumni in the current survey stated in free responses that they felt that extracurricular activities such as internships, product development competitions, food science club, college bowl, IFT event(s), etc., were as important for their career development as was their standard course work. The lower rate of involvement by the students in extracurricular activities enumerated in the 2008 survey may have contributed to the reduced rating of Success Skill competencies in the same year. This suggests that involvement in extracurricular activities tended to provide students with useful perspectives on critical issues facing the profession, and need to be stress by faculty and advisors.
Experiential learning is critical for illuminating the complexities of professional issues and filling in gaps in students’ education not typically provided in classroom experiences (Domask 2007). Consequently more emphasis on “real world issues” in food science courses should be addressed across the curriculum. To meet the needs of society and industry, the National Research Council (2009) strongly advocates for the transformation of the undergraduate educational experience to prepare graduates in the agricultural sciences to address present and future strategic global issues. Recommended changes in agricultural education include “breaking down silos” so students can work across disciplines, engage in case study and problem-based learning, and participate in service learning activities in order to prepare for the challenges of a “world changing at an increasing pace and unleashing a complicated set of problems and opportunities” (NRC 2009).
While “out of class” experiences are essential, evaluation of the broader lessons learned from this type of education need to be analyzed and conveyed to faculty and students. A survey of >300 employers (companies of ≥25 employees and where ≥25% of new hires hold at least a bachelor's degree from a four-year college) indicated that assessment approaches that evaluate the level of student mastery of real-world and applied-learning (including “supervised internships, community-based projects and comprehensive senior projects”) are held in high regard when it comes to predicting potential to succeed in the job world (Hart 2008). Sagen and others (2000) also found that with recent college graduates, activities such as internships, involvement in student organizations, and coursework outside of the major significantly enhanced initial employment success. To respond to the needs of industry as well as post-baccalaureate education, more aggressive advising into experiential learning opportunities and increased use of student-centered, problem-based, cooperative learning strategies needs to be employed in undergraduate education (Knight and Wood 2005; Michaelsen and others 2002; NRC 1999).
Focus of school of food science program improvement
The survey responses highlighted areas of the Food Science program that require improvement. Consistent in the 2004 and current surveys, about 40% of the alumni felt that their feedback as students with respect to educational improvements was not taken seriously. These types of perceptions are de-motivating and demonstrate a move away from effective learner-centered teaching techniques. Additionally, such perceptions can lead to problems in student retention (Habley and McClananhan 2004). Millennial students have a very different set of learning and interpersonal traits than their instructors, and need prompt and significant feedback (Wilson 2004). A follow-up survey with respect to this comment is warranted as the School of Food Science program strives to incorporate student feedback into programmatic improvements in order to close the assessment cycle loop. At the university level, both WSU and UI are beginning to mandate midterm course evaluations, and are strongly encouraging instructors to discuss the results and their course modifications with students. This type of feedback may provide more satisfactory responses to students as changes to courses are made during their attendance rather than after the end of a course.
Additional areas of improvement need to focus on specific fundamental knowledge areas. In free responses by the alumni in the 2008 survey, 26% of respondents made comments critical of the lack of training and exposure to sensory training; HACCP, SOPs, and sanitation training; food processing equipment; chromatography; US and International laws and regulations pertaining to food; baking, cereals and confection technologies; and industries “other than wine and cheese production”. In response to some of these comments, a sensory faculty member was hired in 2004, and the students have the opportunity to attend two-day HACCP and Good Agricultural Practices workshops provided by a WSU faculty member each semester. Other improvements have been the stabilization of teaching assignments in the food processing and engineering courses. Some of the other concerns can be alleviated by encouraging more undergraduate participation in faculty research and industry internships.
With respect to improvement of integrating fundamental knowledge and skills into practical use, when asked if they would perform Applied Food Science Skills more often if better prepared, 75% of the graduates stated that “they might or would definitely.” The graduates responded at similar rates (72%–74%) when asked the same question with regards to the other skill competencies.
These results suggest that there is need for broader program improvements to meet the challenges facing students after graduation. Ya-hui and Li-yia (2008) stressed the importance of student engagement, and assessment of employer-valued graduate attributes for employability in the context of lifelong learning. They elaborated that it is a mistake in higher education to assess only the acquisition of skills, knowledge or dispositions, while ignoring evaluation of a student's ability to make a holistic connection of these “technical skills” into practical application in the workforce. With regard to the quality of graduating students, there have been national calls for increased accountability in the integration of course content into the process of using the content. The Spellings Report (USDE 2006) recommended the development and implementation of mechanisms to allow for assessment of, among other aspects of higher education, the quality of critical thinking and life-long learning education.
Future assessment of the WSU/UI Food Science program should explicitly address how well Applied Food Science Skills, as well as the implicit critical thinking skills, are integrated into the course curricula and if they meet the revised IFT 2011 Guidelines. Given the results of the current survey and those from 2004, it is the responsibility of the WSU/UI Food Science administration and faculty to “close the loop” by regularly reviewing course goals, outcomes, instructional activities, and assessment methods to determine how to best address the deficits and maintain the strengths named by the graduates and employers (Angelo and Cross 1999).
While it is important for faculty to develop strong, useful learning outcomes and to be apprised of the results of alumni surveys, it is also important that current students in the program, particularly the 1st and 2nd year students, are aware of the lessons of the past and the expectations of their future employers. Too often, undergraduates do not understand the reasons for specific curricular and critical thinking development activities (Humphreys 2006). The majority of the graduates in the current survey responded that their extracurricular experiences were invaluable to their career development, and explicitly mentioned the importance of critical thinking skills. However a number of large-scale employer surveys have been critical of the overall level of critical thinking skill in new college graduates (Business Roundtable 2009; Casner-Loto and Benner 2006; Hart 2008). It is therefore essential that food science programs continue to nurture student involvement in extracurricular activities and develop critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills in and outside of the classroom. Active engagement in higher education by students is more important than ever, since employers interviewed during the recent economic downturn indicated that not only will they increase emphasis on hiring graduates from four-year colleges in the future, but they will also expect more out of their employees (Hart 2010).
This survey revealed that recent WSU/UI food science graduates were satisfied with their educational experience and felt adequately prepared in most of the core competencies stated in the 2001 IFT Education Standards. The employers also indicated that the graduates were adequately prepared for their jobs. Most Success Skills defined by IFT are performed on a weekly or more frequent basis; however most of the other skills in Food Chemistry and Analysis, Food Safety and Microbiology, Food Engineering and Processing, and Applied Food Science are perceived to be performed on a less routine basis. Some improvements appear to have been made in the program since the survey in 2004; yet critical thinking skills, group dynamics, and government regulations need to be better addressed in the teaching and learning content. Graduates emphasized the benefit of integrating a wide range of career development extracurricular activities into their educational experience.
We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Nils Peterson, of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, in developing the online survey for this research. The research was supported by a WSU Teaching and Learning Grant.
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