Bioresource and agricultural engineering (BRAE) may not be a rockstar discipline, but it is just as important as other engineering majors, according to a recent Forbes Magazine article.
In general, agricultural engineering majors have been looked down upon because the subject does not have the glitz and glamour of other majors, Forbes staff writer Alexander Knapp said. It is more of a “nuts and bolts” type of major, he said.
“There is something that is almost blue — I’m not sure if blue collar is the right word — but less white collar about it,” Knapp said. “And I think those types of majors tend to get overlooked, which is a shame, but our society doesn’t value the nuts and bolts.”
‘A small cooperative department’
Even at Cal Poly, the agricultural engineering major gets overlooked because of the tremendous success from the College of Engineering on campus, BRAE department head Kenneth Solomon said. Agricultural engineering is technically within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) and separated from the other engineering majors.
Even if they may not first enter Cal Poly as a BRAE major, Solomon said a select group of students will notice the BRAE department and try to transfer into one of the department’s two majors. On average, 15 to 20 students will transfer into the major each year, he said.
“They love the climate here,” Solomon said. “It’s a small cooperative department. It’s not so much of a dog-eat-dog world here and everyone’s not trying to climb over each other to get to the top.”
BRAE students learn a large range of information — everything from mechanical to water engineering, he said — which prepares them for the real world.
“That’s not just a bunch of mechanics running around because they have greasy overalls on,” Solomon said. “Those are our students and they are learning how to do those things. Even though they are not going to be machinists in their career, they need to have done that so they understand when they are managing companies and process.”
Cal Poly has solid undergraduate education in all departments, but it is especially true with the BRAE department, Solomon said. The department focuses less on specialties and more on learning all aspects that come from engineering, he said.
“So when they see a problem, they don’t just think of one way to solve it or one aspect of it that they can control,” Solomon said. “They have a broader awareness of how they might tackle the solution and they have an awareness of the fundamental issues so they can kind of roll with the conditions as they change and as they go.”
BRAE students have an advantage after they graduate because they are the highest paid major, along with agricultural systems management, to come out of the CAFES, Solomon said.
“Most of our students have two or three job offers when they graduate to choose from,” Solomon said. “They don’t go shopping for jobs, jobs go shopping for them.”
A necessary discipline
The BRAE department’s lessons can also be directly applied to the students’ jobs in the department and for their careers, BRAE junior Kerilyn Ambrosini said.
“In my field, water engineering, we provide pretty much the life blood of California,” Ambrosini said. “If you cannot efficiently supply that to your field then you will not be successful.”
In his article, Knapp also recognized the importance of agricultural engineering to the nation’s future.
Food supply has remained consistent with the rise in population growth, but that is ultimately going to change, Knapp said. There will be a need for improving crop growth by growing the crops at a larger and faster rate. Environmental dangers also threaten agricultural land and reduce water. Improving agricultural land can be a way of working around the problems, he said.
“That is going to require, I think, more sophisticated, technical know-how in order to keep those yields steady and able to feed the population,” Knapp said.
Students will face challenges such as climate change affecting the weather in many places that are relied on to produce food, Knapp said. The change in climate will ultimately change the type of crops grown in certain places, he said.
“I don’t know if you saw the movie ‘Looper,’ but that movie took place in Kansas,” Knapp said. “They were growing sugar cane there, which you can’t grow now but in the future it might be a variable project.”
At Cal Poly, respect for the environment and respect for all things that go into living systems are key values students learn, Solomon said. Respect is emphasized on the environment and these systems because the major works with them on a daily basis, he said.
“This is the only business I know that you work with those elements every day to make life,” Solomon said. “Those are the values we teach in this department; to make life better for us.”
Dillon Payne contributed to this article.