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Dean Kate VandenBosch

The start of a new year prompts thoughts about the future. That’s certainly been true for me as I wrap up my first year as dean and, together with an array of stakeholders on campus and around the state, move through the forward-looking process of strategic planning for CALS.

Chief among our stakeholders are our students. And when it comes to thinking about how and why our college is growing, students are a revealing group to consider.

Their numbers confirm that in fact we are growing, and at an impressive pace. CALS has 3,059 undergraduate students enrolled this fall—up 7.3 percent from last year and 33 percent from 10 years ago.

What’s drawing students to CALS? Their areas of study are an indication. We’re seeing continuing growth in such majors as biology, biochemistry and genetics as well as microbiology, nutritional sciences, biological systems engineering and food science, which has doubled since 2008. Biology, with enrollments divided between CALS and Letters and Sciences, is now the biggest major at UW–Madison, and more than half of biology majors are enrolled in CALS.

Deans at our peer colleges around the country report similar trends. What we’re seeing is that students, among their reasons for studying the agricultural and life sciences, want to make an impact on the grand challenges facing our world. And yes, they also are attracted to the good job prospects in many of our disciplines.

That’s certainly what I’m hearing in talks with students in various settings—at presentations and awards ceremonies and, most extensively, in the CALS First Year Seminar I had the pleasure of teaching last semester. The course, intended to give freshmen an overview of CALS, is designed around the grand challenges that concern them.

Many of our talks focused around the needs of a planet that soon will hold nine billion people. How do we provide enough food, water and energy in a sustainable manner? Our discussions concerned everything from the need to develop crops that make more efficient use of nutrients to tapping the potential of renewable energy to better understanding the impacts of changing climate conditions and what constitutes optimal nutrition.

We need to ensure that we equip students to meet these challenges. We’re not here only to teach them about the tools we have today. We need to educate them in a way that allows them to think across disciplines, to innovate, to come up with solutions possibly not yet imagined.

That’s a challenge for us now as we formulate our strategic plan. And in the best Wisconsin tradition I invite us all to look forward.

For information and to provide input on the CALS strategic plan, visit dev.cals.wisc.edu/about-cals/administration/strategic-planning/