The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) might not come to mind when biology educators are searching for funding to support innovative projects, but the agency turns out to be a welcome partner in the field. In early 2013, the USDA joined other federal agencies and private funders in supporting the second Vision and Change in Biology Education conference. As Muquarrab Qureshi, assistant director of the USDA's Institute of Youth, Family, and Community, explained in an opening presentation, the USDA is concerned about the disparity between the high level of interest in science among younger students and the low number of college graduates who actually pursue science careers. Although the USDA's programs are aimed at ultimately attracting students to careers in the food and agricultural sciences, said Qureshi, focusing biology courses on such topics can help make science relevant to all students. Of particular interest to educators is the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which provides extramural education funding to its academic partners.
The USDA's participation in the conference reflects federal efforts to increase interagency collaboration. Such collaboration is crucial if the future of undergraduate biology education, as it has been envisioned in multiple reports published over the last few years, is to be realized. During his plenary talk, James P. Collins, professor of natural history and the environment at Arizona State University, emphasized the need to take advantage of the challenges facing the community, hold tight to one's values, and take a systems approach. "We need to treat undergraduate biology education as a system," he said, referring to the Stanford Social Innovation Review's work on collective impact, which describes a deliberate, systematic approach to collaboration. Collins added, "The USDA plays a role in supporting and enhancing a system that supports students at each step of a developmental process that creates a pipeline from early-stage curiosity to the sorts of research that will yield the breakthroughs in biology in the twenty-first century."
Those breakthroughs depend on a knowledgeable and well-prepared workforce, a big concern of the USDA's. As Qureshi noted, "Currently, the best students do not view agriculture as an attractive career option."
To help strengthen the workforce, NIFA offers the Higher Education Challenge (HEC) Grants Program, which supports faculty members to develop coursework on new scientific developments and thereby to help recruit students into related fields. "The USDA has been closely tracking the gap between the number of students graduating with food and agriculture degrees and the employment demand for the past few decades," said P. Gregory Smith, program director of the HEC, in an interview. A recent report, Employment Opportunities for College Graduates in Food, Renewable Energy, and the Environment, United States, 2010–2015 (www3.ag.purdue.edu/USDA/employment/pages/default.aspx), highlights the gap.
Robin Kimmerer, professor of environmental biology at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), received an HEC grant in 2012 to launch a project titled "Learning from the land: A cross-cultural partnership in forest stewardship education for climate change adaptation in the northern forest." The goal of her 3-year project is to increase the number of Native Americans pursuing careers in environmental sciences. As is described in the online summary, it is "a unique partnership among a tribal college ([the] College of the Menominee Nation), a research university [ESF], and a tribal forest management agency (Menominee Tribal Enterprises)." Kimmerer is the founding director of ESF's Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, which is an extension of her long history working to improve awareness and understanding about the value of traditional ecological knowledge. "At ESF, we train the bulk of environmental science managers for the region, so we think [that] it's really important for everyone to know about another way of knowing," explained Kimmerer. Their courses foster critical thinking by engaging students in a different cultural perspective and by questioning their assumptions about the nature of land and our relationship to it. The "USDA has been a great partner for us, not only in our new project but also through their multicultural scholars program," said Kimmerer.
The USDA places a high value on the kinds of collaborations in which Kimmerer and her community are engaged. A competitive HEC grant proposal cannot focus only on what will happen in an individual classroom, explains Smith. He encourages all biology educators who have students with the potential to go into the food and agricultural sciences to apply. Successful candidates will convey a crucial, documented pedagogical challenge and will lay out a strategy to collaboratively address it in an innovative manner with a rigorous evaluation plan. "We are always looking to make sure that we are using the expertise of everyone in the community," explained Smith. Through its programs, the USDA is trying to excite students about learning and to help them recognize the wide variety of career options in the food and agricultural sciences.
BioScience 64: 11