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Learned it through the grapevine

Originally published in MOREnetworking Vol. 2 No. 5, Jan. 2006

VESTA offers viticulture training to budding winemakers—anytime, anywhere

If VESTA Program Director Michelle Norgren had her way, she might rename the Internet the Grapevine, because the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA) is all about using Internet tools and capabilities to provide an education in grape growing and winemaking not only to mid-America but also anyone, anywhere.

VESTA is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded partnership between the Missouri State University system, Northeast Iowa Community College, Shawnee Community College in Illinois, state agriculture agencies, vineyards and wineries designed to offer certification through distance-learning technology. While VESTA is coordinated from the Missouri State West Plains offices, articulation agreements allow participating students to receive credits from the member institutions, rather than transfer credits.

According to Norgren, the idea originated with Principal Investigator Murli Dharmadhikari, who recognized that, while the wine industry was exploding exponentially in the Midwest, there was no corresponding education support. “The most prominent viticulture programs were UC-Davis on the west coast, and Cornell on the east” Norgren said. “So before VESTA, a Midwesterner seeking formal winemaking education­ had to pay lots of money and take off for one of the coasts.”

“With such a rapidly growing wine industry in middle America, there’s a real need to make sure the education keeps up in order to create and maintain a knowledgeable workforce. We explored ways we could meet the needs of workers who are often rurally located adults with other jobs preventing them from just packing up for California. With today’s distance education and support technology, we felt like we could deliver quality training online.”

In the third year of the three year NSF grant, the program continues to grow. Three more institutions are joining the original three: two in Iowa and one in Oklahoma. Students numbered 37 for fall 2004, and 131 in fall 2005. There are now 11 classes, with three more to be added to complete the program.

Students and professors come from all over—“California, New York, Florida and everything in the middle,” Norgren said. “Expertise is spread across the country, and the technology enables us to bring in some of the best instructors and professionals in the field.”

While almost all of the instruction and interaction takes place online, a critical component of each class is on site, at a vineyard or winery that meets VESTA’s criteria. “It’s hands-on,” Norgren said, “but there again, it’s the technology that allows us to utilize the vineyards and wineries across the country.”

VESTA instructors employ a variety of tools: Centra, Blackboard and WebCT, among others—whatever best suits the class. “To a large degree we leave the way that it’s taught to the instructor,” Norgren said. “Our students seem to be comfortable with the various formats.”

Dr. Barry Gump, VESTA professor and Professor of Enology and Food Science at Fresno State University, said that teaching an online applied chemistry course in wine analysis has proved to be a challenging and rewarding experience. “Here we are able to accommodate students from all over, and virtually none of them would have easy access to a program like this locally,” Gump said. “I have found it to be a very good opportunity for me to broaden my own perspective. The professors will sometimes learn more from this type of class than they will from traditional ones.”

Denise Cimmarrusti, a VESTA and Missouri State student living in northern Illinois, shared Gump’s sentiments. “I have been enrolled in the program over several­ semesters now and have been thoroughly satisfied with the knowledge I have gained from the courses,” Cimmarrusti said. “The VESTA program offers­ me the opportunity to complete coursework in my chosen field with the flexibility and convenience of on-line classes while managing a busy lifestyle split between raising a family, working and continuing my education.”

Learn more about VESTA at vesta-usa.org.

shoryl | Sunday, January 1, 2006 | |

 

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