MTSU Using $901K-plus Grant to Reach Next-gen Agriculture Leaders

MTSU USDA grant3
As part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s overall $262.5 million earmarked for higher education institutions to foster the next generation of diverse agricultural professionals nationwide, Middle Tennessee State University’s School of Agriculture and Tennessee STEM Education Center received nearly $901,400 to partner with regional middle schools and high schools to support that effort. (U.S. Department of Agriculture file photo)

Middle Tennessee State University School of Agriculture faculty are part of a group collectively awarded $18.1 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to educate and develop tomorrow’s agricultural leaders from all communities.

MTSU faculty will receive nearly $901,400 from the USDA’s overall $262.5 million earmarked for higher education institutions to foster the next generation of diverse agricultural professionals nationwide, with MTSU using the funds to develop educational programs and opportunities for high schools and middle schools in the Metro Nashville area and across the state.

The grant will attract and engage college students at eligible institutions through research, work experiences and study abroad experiential learning opportunities.

This program, announced in June by the USDA, is funded by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to lower costs for American families, expand access to markets to producers from all backgrounds and communities, build a clean energy economy and strengthen American supply chains, the USDA release said.

This project, which is being led by Tennessee State University researchers, will establish an inclusive group of universities from nearly every minority-serving institution category to build and sustain the future workforce in food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences.

“MTSU’s contribution to this project can be characterized by a commitment to ensuring equitable opportunities for racially and ethnically diverse students,” said Chaney Mosley, MTSU School of Agriculture assistant professor and research grant project co-leader with Kevin Ragland.

“Many may not be aware of the vast career opportunities in the USDA and across other sectors of agriculture,” Mosley added. “The collective impact of our work will be felt across the state of Tennessee as we engage learners in problem solving and critical thinking through career exploration activities and work toward removing barriers to accessing postsecondary education.”

Ragland, ag faculty member and associate director (as is Mosley) in the Tennessee STEM Education Center, said they “are excited to partner with TSU in helping cultivate the next generation of diverse food and agriculture professionals.”

College of Basic and Applied Sciences Dean Greg Van Patten said “this is one of several very large grants I know about that have either just come through or are on their way to the college for 2023.”

Assistant professor Samuel Haruna, associate professor Song Cui, professor and School of Agriculture Director Jessica Carter are MTSU faculty members involved with the grant totaling $901,398.

The collegiate consortium includes Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt University, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, other universities and the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, or MANRRS, organization.

Taking the lead

MTSU’s Tennessee STEM Education Center is taking the lead in the development and dissemination for 24 immersive learning laboratory kits for middle school students, with support from STEM education faculty and students. Six science kits (two each for sixth, seventh and eighth grades), aligned with Next Generation Science standards, will be developed each year for four years.

The kits will include lesson plans and materials will be disseminated to approximately 40 middle schools in Nashville, Tennessee. For middle school teachers needing to be better informed, laboratory kits will facilitate inquiry-based instruction by providing them with lesson plans and materials and directing students to the USDA/NIFA Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Human Sciences Pipeline, or FANHP.

“I’m aware of the potential for hands-on learning opportunities such as these to introduce students to FANHP college and career opportunities and am excited to support this work by connecting our middle school science teachers with these resources,” said Jennifer Berry, director of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) for MTSU partner Metro Nashville Public Schools.

MTSU will lead the implementation of virtual reality immersive career exploration activities around food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences experiences and careers.

Mosley will work with a vendor, Transfr, to provide virtual reality learning activities that showcase more than 23 USDA-aligned careers and can be utilized by an unlimited number or individuals for a period of time. MTSU will work with Pathful, a digital tool Transfr offers, to virtually connect learners from 25 partnering high schools across the state with access to industry experts across the country for work-based experiential learning and postsecondary planning.

Faculty involvement

MTSU faculty members Carter, Haruna and Cui (pronounced CHOY) will mentor high school students on research projects in livestock, agronomy and soil health. Faculty will travel to high schools to set up research experiences and mentor students. They will work with teachers to ensure the experiences are curriculum-relevant and complementary to the learning outcomes of the respective programs.

Haruna will establish a Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences collegiate chapter at MTSU and engage students in national leadership opportunities with the organization.

“MTSU undergrads can’t participate on our campus except through participation in the MANRRS organization,” Mosley said. “However, they will have access to grad school through assistantships and such. Only the eligible institutions can work with undergrad programming outside of the MANRRS student organization.”

Carter will work with Parchment, a college-level online course sharing platform, to allow MTSU agriculture faculty and students to participate in an agriculture course-sharing network with other universities.

The MTSU STEM Education Center will organize logistics for an annual three-day/two-night Positive Youth Development Career Success event, including registration, lodging, meeting rooms and audio-visual rentals, meals and mileage reimbursements for 50 participants.

Cui will engage underserved youth and adults in a digital agriculture certificate program. He will collaborate with a TSU faculty member to host approximately 10 youth and adult crop growers annually for precision/digital agriculture techniques and training online via the MTSU platform and TSU Nursery Education Center to facilitate technological knowledge and skill attainment.

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