High Schoolers Grow Into Scholars at NC Youth Institute

Group of faces from an online conference call

“How will we sustainably feed 10 billion people by 2050 with less land and water, and with erratic weather patterns?” asked Barbara Stinson, President of the World Food Prize. “Future agricultural leaders must answer these questions.”  Last week 18 NC high schoolers achieved Borlaug Scholar recognition from the World Food Prize in their pursuit of hunger relief at the North Carolina Youth Institute hosted by NC State.

Creating Agricultural Awards 

Norman Borlaug, widely known as the father of the Green Revolution, received a 1970 Nobel Prize for his humanitarian work fighting hunger around the world.  Borlaug founded the World Food Prize to elevate innovations and to inspire action that will sustainably increase the quality, quantity, and availability of food.  The Global Youth Institute is one program that engages high schoolers across the world in research and discussion on critical topics of hunger and food insecurity.

NC Youth Institute 

There are 23 state-level Youth Institutes held across the United States that qualify scholars for the annual Global Youth Institute. NC State has hosted the NC Youth Institute on campus since 2015.  Motivated NC high schoolers select a topic (from a list of categories) to research and present to a panel of university experts in a day-long symposium – a daunting task at age 15. The event is completely voluntary and extracurricular but provides huge enrichment value.  

Three students standing in front of a World Food Prize bannerConcerned about the possibility of cancellation due to COVID-19 restrictions, NC Youth Institute Director and NC State Crop and Soil Sciences professor Lori Unruh-Snyder decided to take the event online. 

“These students had worked so hard [on their research].  Many parents were emailing me asking me not to cancel the program.  We wanted to give their students an exciting way to present their work. Parents really appreciated the normalcy it brought to their students – finally something that wasn’t canceled! It was a whirlwind decision with only a few weeks to ready the group for online discussion.  But we were committed to making this happen for them,” Lori Unruh-Snyder said. 

Normally, the NC Youth Institute is a day and a half long program held on NC State’s campus. “By hosting the NC Youth Institute online, we did miss a few elements.  Students usually get to tour our campus and participate in workshops exploring careers in agriculture. Past year’s tours have included poultry science, animal science and  soil science labs, the Agroecology Education farm, and the campus phytotron and plant diagnostic center. I hated that we had to miss these and other team-building events, but our priority was making sure the students could present their work and become Borlaug Scholars,” Unruh-Snyder said.  

A large group of students seated around a conference table
NC Youth Institute events are usually held on NC State’s campus

Digital Delivery

Last week, 18 NC high school students dressed in business casual for their first Zoom conference call, in which they would star. The virtual event opened with a welcome and an encouraging message from Shevonda Young, head of the USDA/Agricultural Research Service (and NC State alumna) and the President of the World Food Prize, Barbara Stinson.  Their words challenged students to ‘inspire action’ and to look beyond food production to preserving natural resources, ensuring food systems access, and meeting cultural requirements. 

A green title slide of a presentation about the NC Youth InstituteThe NC Youth Institute is a diverse group, attracting students from all ethnic backgrounds and all three regions of the state. Students had six months to consult with their teachers and mentors, research their chosen topic, write a report, and prepare to present their work to a group of university experts. 

“The analytical work [students] did was authentic. I hope that they appreciate that the difficult work of improving lives, transforming economies and ensuring global food security starts in the library with a blank page then continues in the field, conducting research and building global relationships. Our students got a first opportunity to build those relationships in the welcoming environment of NC State,” said Jon Davis, instructor at the NC School of Science and Math.

Beyond the Book

The assignment is not a book report.  Students dive deep to understand foreign cultures, political climates, economic conditions, geography, and agriculture related to their topic.  Research must go beyond fact-finding. Part of the requirement is to propose real-world solutions to the problems students identified. 

This year’s NC State expert panel included ten faculty members from soils, agronomy, weed science, poultry science, entomology, and agroecology.

Conference call photo of a man wearing glasses
Josh Heitman, professor of soil science, served on the NC State expert panel

“I was originally expecting a simple and general overview of the topics each student had to present. I was pleasantly surprised by how well prepared the students were and the level of depth in their presentations and answers. Some of the students were at the level of college students or higher,” said Ramon Leon, NC State weed science professor and 2020 panelist.

After reading the students’ submitted work, the expert panel observes each student’s presentation and offers thought-provoking questions and application challenges.  Students must think quickly on their feet – or this year, on their computer.

And think they did. Students presented compelling proposals on topics including improving natural water sources in Afghanistan, ending food waste in first world countries, and ending human trafficking in Mauritania.  

I’m glad that the NC Youth Institute was able to let me express these ideas and get serious feedback

“The NC Youth Institute, for me, was a way to learn more about important topics around the world as well as to contribute what I know to other individuals who care about the topic. The main thing I wanted to do was highlight sustainable practices in other countries, practices which already work and can be implemented elsewhere. I’m glad that the NC Youth Institute was able to let me express these ideas and get serious feedback,” said Clancy Lamour, 2020 NC Youth Institute participant.

The three-hour conference call ended with roundtable discussions on two topics: ‘What if the whole world suddenly went vegan?’ And ‘How does war affect national immune systems?’  World Food Prize representatives moderated discussions throughout the day’s call and enthusiastically encouraged students via chat to keep their confidence high.

Inspiring Future Study

Two adults standing with an award recipient
NC Youth Institute Participants become Borlaug Scholars (2019 event)

“This event has definitely solidified my desire to get a bachelor’s in some kind of plant science. Seeing all the passion in our experts in engaging with me and my fellow participants showed how welcoming a CALS program could be. Looking ahead, I look forward to working with some of the experts I met at the competitions, whether in a classroom or on a farm,” said Jerry Yu, 2020 NC Youth Institute participant.

Former NC Youth Institute participants volunteered and assisted throughout the day.  They offered advice and encouragement to the younger students. “I’m reminded of the quote Mister Rogers repeated from his mother in troubling times. ‘Look for the helpers,’ she said. In the world food system, you are now one of the helpers,’” Gracie Ward, 2018 NC Youth Institute participant, said to her new fellow Borlaug Scholars.

The event concluded with a virtual awards ceremony confirming Borlaug Scholar status on the group of students.  

“My dream is to have many future North Carolina Youth Institute Scholars become World Food Prize Laureates one day, and join the other CALS alumni like Drs. Maria Andrade (1995) and Robert Mwanga (2001), who won the World Food Prize in 2016. They breed orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties resistant to pests, drought and heat for sub-Saharan Africa. I know our NC Youth Institute student scholars will go on to accomplish big goals,” said Unruh-Snyder. 

Want to Learn More?

NC State hosts the NC Youth Institute each spring, where students engage with faculty on critical food security topics. If you are a student interested in agriculture and food systems (or know someone who is), learn about our multiple degree programs or sign up for an email exploration of our department’s undergraduate studies.  

Keep up with the latest news and research from the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences by joining our Crop & Soil Sciences weekly newsletter. We are growing the future.