Outreach Grows Next-Generation Leaders for Agriculture and Life Sciences

Student's hand pouring water from a beaker onto a plant.

A well-known fact about U.S. agricultural jobs: The country needs far more ag professionals than American universities graduate each year. NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is out to change that, in part by encouraging pre-college students and their educators to see how diverse and important agriculture actually is.

As an NC State 4-H youth development specialist for horticultural science, crop and soil science and entomology, Liz Driscoll points out that not many people realize that the agricultural field is broader than farming. With CALS degrees, graduates have gone on to careers that range from food product development to precision agriculture consulting, conservation biology, plant sciences – and much more.

“There’s a ripeness there. What we are doing with these educational programs is not only developing scientific literacy and skills, but bridging that gap between youth and career choice,” says Driscoll. “We are deepening students’ knowledge and understanding of agriculture, and we are building their self-efficacy – their perception of how well they do science. Both are important factors influencing career choice.”

Faculty members throughout the college offer a wide array of experiences for K-12 students and their educators to learn more about agriculture and the life sciences. Building on its decades-long experience with such traditional outreach programs, like 4-H and the state’s annual weeklong Resource Conservation Program, two newer projects from the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences illustrate just some of the creative ways the faculty encourages the next generation of leaders in agriculture and life sciences.

Institute Inspires Students to Take on Global Challenges

Scientist discusses erosion control outside with Youth Institute participants
North Carolina Youth Institute participants recently visited NC State’s Erosion, Sediment, and Turbidity Control Program.

As a high schooler in Salisbury, Mikayla Graham knew she wanted to go to NC State to study animal science as a first step toward becoming a veterinarian. When a teacher told her about a program that would give her an opportunity to come to campus, she leapt at the chance.

The decision to take part in the North Carolina Youth Institute changed her life, inspiring a passion for working with farmers to ensure a safe and sustainable food supply well into the future.

The program, hosted at NC State each spring, gives participants the chance to engage with leaders and experts as they explore ways they can make a difference in North Carolina and around the world. Lori Unruh Snyder, associate professor in Crop and Soil Sciences, coordinates the program, and other faculty members volunteer to serve as judges, speakers and workshop leaders.

To earn a spot in the institute, high school students learn more about another country, identify an important issue there and write a paper about their ideas for solving that problem. Then at the institute, they deliver a presentation on their findings for feedback from a panel of judges and take part in workshops and field trips.

As Unruh Snyder explained, “The goal is to address world hunger and to involve youth so their voices can be heard and they know that their opinions matter.”

The goal is to address world hunger and to involve youth so … they know that their opinions matter.

The state institute is affiliated with the annual Global Youth Institute sponsored by the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa. Those who participate in the North Carolina or global institute can apply for the prestigious Borlaug-Ruan International Internship or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wallace-Carver Fellowship.

The fellowships give students the chance to collaborate with world-renowned scientists and policymakers through paid fellowships at leading USDA research centers and offices across the United States. For more information and eligibility requirements, see the USDA Wallace-Carver Fellowship website.

Selected Borlaug-Ruan interns get an all-expenses-paid, eight-week experience taking part in leading-edge research with scientists and policymakers at research centers in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. For eligibility requirements and more information, visit the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship website.

Unruh Snyder established the North Carolina event in 2014, after she had met one of the people for whom the internship is named: Nobel Peace Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug, who stressed to her the importance of investing in young people to solve challenges such as global hunger, malnutrition and water scarcity.

To spread awareness of the institutes and the challenges they address, Unruh Snyder has worked with academic colleagues at the Tuskegee University to establish an institute in Alabama. And she’s hoping to help spread it to other states and countries. Indeed, at this opening dinner of this year’s North Carolina event in April, Unruh Snyder welcomed participants and their teacher-mentors from the Dominican Republic and from Delaware.

Helping Unruh Snyder run the institute is assistant director Lindsay Naumann, a crop and soil sciences student who’s been impressed by the program’s impact on those who take part.

Students pose in front of the arboretum cascade with their certificates.
2018 North Carolina Youth Institute participants were recognized for their efforts to address global challenges.

“It is inspiring to witness teenagers collaborate on ideas about world change and agriculture,” Naumann said. “Dr. Snyder is truly passionate about building the next generation of agronomists and scientists, and this opportunity is transformative for youth.”

That has been with case with Graham, who went to both the North Carolina Youth Institute and the Global Youth Institute. She was so moved by the experience that she rethought her career goal and is now a sophomore studying plant and soil science at NC State.

“I want to work with Extension or a similar organization to help farmers solve problems,” she said. “I want to be the intermediary between the research and the farm to help them increase their yields and their sustainability.”

Professor Uses ‘The Martian’ to Get Kids Excited About Biosciences

Student writes in her notebook at her desk.
A student collects data from one of the experiments to see if The Martian’s methods would really work.

Can you really grow potatoes on Mars? In the novel The Martian and the blockbuster movie it inspired, the protagonist – a botanist-turned-astronaut who gets stranded on Mars – figures out ways to do just that.

But, as Adjunct Professor Tom Sinclair, points out, “None of what he did would have worked. The book got the science of growing plants all wrong.”

Righting those wrongs, Sinclair partnered with Durham Academy teacher Lyn Streck to design and pilot a series of hands-on plant growth experiments recently highlighted in Science Scope, a national magazine for middle school science teachers.

Their goal: to get students excited about biosciences and explore whether the science behind the story is more fiction than fact. Sinclair and Streck’s experiments allowed students to discover that potatoes need greater soil depth, more nutrients and more water than the stranded astronaut had available.

“While the pretext is to study soil, water and nutrients on Mars, we pushed this discussion to what this means for plant growth and food production on Earth,” Sinclair said. “The kids had lots of questions and a lot of fun. We saw their excitement and enthusiasm – and at that age, that’s important to getting and keeping them interested in science.”

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