Many students have likely never considered a career path in plant science, but a new course could potentially lead them to the jackpot.
For the fall 2021 semester, Penn State will offer a course centered around the cannabis plant and the hemp industry as a whole.
The course will be a special topics course from the Department of Plant Science called PLANT297, or Hemp Production, centered around the production of hemp, laws regarding hemp production and business aspects of hemp production.
According to Louis Bengyella, an assistant research professor in the department and the course instructor, PLANT297 will prepare anyone for the industry.
“It’s really all that you need to start hemp production,”Bengyella said.
John Kaminski, a professor and associate head of the Department of Plant Science, said a course could not be centered around cannabis in the past because it was deemed illegal.
However, with the 2018 Farm Bill being passed, hemp, which is cannabis with less than 2.3% THC, became legal. Kaminski said this is what allowed the university to start researching the hemp plant.
“Our farmers and those getting involved in hemp production, whether it be for CBD or fiber, there’s not a lot of information out there on how to do it,” Kaminski said. “This seemed like a logical solution to meet the needs of both the students and the growers in the field.”
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Kaminski said he was interested in developing a course around hemp for several years and was inspired by hemp courses at other universities, like the University of Connecticut and Cornell University. He said he felt it could attract more students into studying plant science.
“It was a long process to get it approved because the university just wasn’t sure about it,” Kaminski said. “It’s a very new plant in Pennsylvania.”
Kaminski said he approached Bengyella to be the instructor for the course because Bengyella previously worked for a company in Washington that produced cannabis legally. Kaminski said there was a national search to find an instructor for the course, and they felt Bengyella was a “natural fit” when he applied.
Bengyella said he feels hemp production could be a very profitable industry for Penn State students, and he believes it could be worth billions in the next few years.
“[Hemp production] is something that generates a lot of income if you go into the business legally,” Bengyella said. “I really feel like there is a lot of opportunity, and the students who we have currently in our department have a unique opportunity.”
Bengyella said hemp research at universities is growing. He mentioned the University of Oregon, University of California, Davis, University of Kentucky, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Montana State University, which all have programs on hemp production.
“Universities are now going completely mainstream with cannabis production-related courses,” Bengyella said.
Kaminski said he wanted to make the course applicable for natural science general education credits, because he felt this course could appeal to students of different backgrounds.
“It could be someone who is a business major or someone who is interested in agricultural economics,” Kaminski said. “We feel because hemp is becoming such a huge business, the class will attract students from all throughout the university.”
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Alyssa Collins, an associate research professor in the Penn State Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, contributed some assistance in the creation of the course. She said she also feels this course could provide good opportunities for Penn State students.
“A course like this will give [students] a richer understanding of the biological sciences in a way that makes them better business people, engineers, marketing specialists and citizens of the world in general,” Collins said via email.
Collins said she thinks cannabis courses and curricula can be a “gateway” to other subjects within STEM, specifically in plant production.
“People are interested in hemp and other cannabis crops for many reasons, and plenty of these folks may not have considered a career in plant science until they begin to learn more about it,” Collins said.
One aspect Collins noted is the course will not be stagnant because the hemp industry is “constantly changing.”
“While the basics will remain the same, the context and information will constantly change to reflect the latest developments in the industry as the market, policy, and best management practices progress and mature with new understanding,” Collins said.
Collins added she thinks this course could inspire more classes on hemp and cannabis at Penn State.
“I hope to see subsequent offerings for students to explore so that we can really prepare graduates to be nimble in an ever-changing market.”