A new online bioenergy and sustainable technology graduate certificate has been launched at four land-grant universities. The certificate will equip a new generation of professionals to function in the interdisciplinary environment typical of a biotechnology economy.

Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University, South Dakota State University, and the University of Arkansas—working as an alliance—have specialized faculty teaching courses online for the 15-hour graduate certificate. Participants might have baccalaureate degrees in agriculture, engineering, business, physical sciences, biological sciences, or social sciences.

Students learn from faculty in a variety of disciplines: biological and agricultural engineering, agricultural economics and agribusiness, environmental sciences, chemical engineering, biochemical engineering and biotechnology, bioenergy crop production, industrial microbiology, environmental and natural resources economics, agronomy and crop physiology. Educators are at the top of their field and share responsibilities for teaching the courses.

Individuals completing the certificate will be able to:

  • comprehend and articulate the multiple aspects of a biobased economy, including economic, environmental, and social implications.
  • combine diverse concepts from multiple disciplines to effectively communicate, interact, collaborate, and work in this field.
  • use a systems approach to problem solving in this field.
  • apply the knowledge base of a specific discipline to this field.

“Expert faculty members in biomass production, chemical conversion, and agricultural economics have joined together to offer courses concentrating on bioenergy for students to develop a complete understanding of the supply in the renewable energy market,” said Mary Rezac, professor of chemical engineering at Kansas State University, who led development of the program. “We strive to provide skills necessary for industry professionals and full-time students to transition and succeed within this developing field.”

In testimony at a 2007 U.S. congressional hearing on meeting workforce demands of small bio-energy businesses, Kelly J. Tiller, Ph.D., associate professor with the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee, said: ”The biotechnology, biofuels, and bio-energy industries have experienced unprecedented growth over the last few years, but I think most industry watchers suggest . . . the next few years could make the past growth look like the flat part of an exponential growth curve yet to come.”

Using a U.S. Department of Agriculture Higher Education Challenge grant, universities came together in 2009 to begin creating the certificate program through the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (Great Plains IDEA). Faculty taught the first classes in the fall of 2011.

Core courses are conversion overview, bioenergy feedstock production, and bioenergy economics and sustainability. Students can take all three core courses for nine credit hours and then select six credit hours of electives from among the courses offered about conversion, feedstocks or sustainability.

Students interested in conversion can choose from thermochemical conversion, biochemical engineering, bioseparations, or fundamentals of bioprocessing. Those interested in feedstocks choose courses in soil and water quality and crop modeling. Those interested in sustainability choose a sustainability seminar or courses in life cycle analysis, bioenergy and resource economics, community and natural resources, risk assessment, or feasibility and commercialization.

The tuition for certificate courses is a common price at all four institutions, currently $485 per credit. Students in the program select one of the partner universities as a home university.

The home university for the student is the venue to be admitted to the program, enroll in the courses, get advisor help, access technology and library support and be granted the certificate. The alliance of the four institutions allows students to capitalize on academic expertise of multiple universities.

To pursue information about the Bioenergy and Sustainable Technology graduate certificate, see details at “Programs” under AG*IDEA, at the Great Plains IDEA website,www.gpidea.org.