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Meet the man who heads up ag education and ag communication training at Purdue University

Meet the man who heads up ag education and ag communication training at Purdue University
Mark Russell is a man on a mission: produce more ag teachers, but then he's always been on a mission to educate people about agriculture.

When Jay Akridge announced the new head of the Youth Development and Ag Education Department at Purdue University in the College of Agriculture several months ago, some people were surprised. The Dean named Mark Russell as the new head. He succeeds Roger Tormoehlen, the first and only previous head of the department.

Russell was a long-time member of the Purdue faculty in animal sciences. He has spent most of his career in horse Extension work, plus teaching and research. Some made the erroneous assumption that Russell was just looking for a place to retire when he accepted the new position.

MAN BEHIND THE POSITION: Mark Russell moved from Animal Sciences to be head of the Youth Development and Ag Education program at Purdue in August of 2015.

Spend an hour talking with Russell, learn about his passion for education and his dedication to agriculture, and you will know nothing could be farther from the truth.  The truth is he accepted a challenging job because Dean Akridge laid down a goal for him, and asked him to achieve it.

“He wants me to double enrollment in ag education in five years,” Russell says. “That will be difficult, but there are certainly things we can do to take steps in that direction.

“I asked the Dean before accepting what if I took the challenge and didn’t achieve that goal,” Russell continues. “The Dean smiled and said, ‘Well, at least you went out trying.’”

With that he took the challenge. But to those who really know Russell and his love for education, it wasn’t a surprise that the Dean would be happy to offer him the positon, or that he would accept it. His background is steeped in agriculture and in education.

Related: The whole world seems short on high school ag teachers

“I grew up in New York State, and I grew up around horses,” Russell says. He did his graduate work at the University of Illinois. He joined the Purdue Animal Sciences faculty in 1982.

“What many people don’t know about me is that I’ve become as interested about how to teach people to do things as I have in advising farmers or people with horses how to do a better job,” he says.

His career includes coaching horse judging for many years, plus judging horse shows as well.

“I was privileged to work with many colleagues in the department who were excellent teachers, and I admire how they could motivate students,” he says.

Related: USFRA launches foundation focused on ag education

Incidentally, one of them was Merle Cunningham, long-time instructor in basic animal science courses at Purdue. He was also this author's major professor while working on a Master’s Degree at Purdue in Dairy Science.

“I felt called to answer this challenge, and we’re going to give it a shot,” Russell says. “We will work within the system, but we will make positive efforts to recruit students and get them excited about teaching high school agricultural sciences.”

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