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What Do Young Adults Think of Farmers?

John Besley

John Besley, associate professor, College of Communication Arts and Sciences, and Ellis N. Brandt Chair in Public Relations, is a leading expert on the public perception of science and scientists. His work has revealed that, unlike the mad scientist character often portrayed in fiction, scientists are among the most highly regarded professionals in society. Even children, for the most part, are capable of differentiating between the two.

“There’s a test called DAST – which stands for ‘Draw a Scientist Test’ – and most children who take this will create a sketch of something similar to the mad scientist in the lab imagery,” Besley said. “However, when asked if this is actually a true picture of what a scientist looks like, I’m told they say they know it’s not.”

In public confidence, scientists rank No. 2 – below the military and above the medical profession. Scientists are also routinely viewed as dedicated individuals who are working to solve important, challenging problems.

“The image of the mad scientist in the lab is familiar to every one of us. We’ve all grown up seeing this persona in movies and cartoons. However, people are able to separate it and view it as just a caricature,” Besley said. “In general, they move on to perceive scientists pretty well compared with most other groups—much better than journalists, politicians or especially lawyers.”

How Farmers Are Perceived

Besley’s expertise recently attracted the attention of leaders at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and MSU AgBioResearch. They’ve enlisted Besley to embark on a research endeavor exploring how young people perceive career tracks within agriculture, an industry riddled with its own fair share of stereotypes.

Douglas Buhler, MSU assistant vice president of research and graduate studies and director of MSU AgBioResearch, said the college is working to ensure that potential students have a clear understanding of the importance and the extensive knowledge, technology and precision involved in modern-day farming.

“Work in the fields of agriculture and natural resources is much more complex and advanced than the image most people have grown up with,” he said. “I often wonder if even the industry, to some extent, is helping to perpetuate stereotypes. This research endeavor will help the college better understand how students perceive careers in agriculture and how we might better inform them about the growing career opportunities in this field. ”

Not About the Money

Besley and Ph.D. candidate Nagwan Zahry have completed the first phase of the research project. High school students and current students within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the College of Natural Science and Lyman Briggs College were surveyed about what types of factors are associated with a student’s willingness to pursue one of the following career tracks: production agriculture, the built environment, food and nutrition, or natural resources and ecology.

“So we really focused on those factors,” Besley said. “There is this hypothesis that if you tell kids that there is money to be made, then they’ll do it. But that’s not what we’re finding. There is this warmth and competence factor that’s highly involved. Kids want to feel like they’re making a difference in the world, and that they’re surrounded by people who are warm and friendly.”

Besley said these findings make sense, given that data about the millennial generation shows that they are largely driven by social causes. They may also be “optimistically biased” about the likelihood of obtaining jobs after college graduation, he said.

Besley and Zahry are compiling the results now for academic review and planning next steps. These will involve designing and testing various types of messages and students’ reactions. Besley said he plans to start with various types of imagery – one person, groups of people and no people at all – to determine which ones resonate and why.

More at the AgBioResearch website.

– Holly Whetstone via AgBioResearch, Futures magazine, Fall-Winter 2015-16

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