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Batting 1000: Feed Milling Awarded Third DELTA Grant

Five people standing in front of a very large screen wall
The feed manufacturing technology grant team created a realistic, immersive virtual reality 3D feed mill tour using a Matterport 3D camera. Pictured left to right, DELTA team members Donnie Wrights, Caitlin McKeown and Arthur Earnest with Principal Investigators Marissa Herchler and Adam Fahrenholz in Hunt Library (2018).

The DELTA Grants program has announced the awardees for their 2020-2021 grant cycle and there are a couple of familiar faces on the list.

It’s grants, not baseball, but the NC State Feed Mill Education Unit’s power hitters, Associate Professor Adam Fahrenholz and Area Specialized Agent Marissa Herchler, are batting a thousand.

Since 2018, Fahrenholz and Herchler have applied to the DELTA Grants program three times. Every time, their application was accepted. In a year filled with challenges, the new grant was some of the best news they’d had in a while.

All the right players

You might be wondering how Fahrenholz and Herchler keep up their streak. They start with teamwork, building and nurturing relationships across campus.

Marissa Herchler
Marissa Herchler
Adam Fahrenholz
Adam Fahrenholz
Donnie Wrights
Donnie Wrights

“When we’re thinking about ideas that could be helpful for learning about feed milling, we reach out to the folks at DELTA and run our ideas by them. They’re like family to us and are practically feed milling experts by now,” Herchler said.

She added, “They’re really helpful in the application process and are always urging us to push the limits on what we can achieve throughout the grant cycle.”

Donnie Wrights, DELTA’s team lead for the grants, echoed Herchler’s feelings. “Marissa and Adam always come in with innovative ideas and are completely open to new opportunities and technologies. This flexibility is crucial to the team’s consistent success. The relationships we developed over the years have made the collaborative experience even more rewarding,” he said.

So far, the feed milling team has partnered with DELTA to create a virtual tour, an interactive decision tree and augmented reality (AR) versions of important (and large) feed milling equipment.

“We’ve enjoyed creating tools that allow our content to be better shared in the digital space,” Fahrenholz said.

We’ve enjoyed creating tools that allow our content to be better shared in the digital space,

Their latest project will address another tricky (and timely) academic curveball: creating virtual labs for remote students.

As colleges and universities have pivoted to remote instruction in response to COVID-19, labs and other hands-on learning activities have been a daunting challenge.

Of course, Fahrenholz and Herchler aren’t ones to back down from a challenge.

“If you build it, they will come.”

It’s not just true about baseball fields in Iowa.

The Feed Mill Education Unit (FMEU) began operations in January 2008 and supports teaching, research, and outreach through NC State Extension. It’s a unique unit in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and one of only a handful of university feed mills in the United States.

The mill gave tours to students, industry and others interested in learning more about how animal feed gets made.

Until recently, though, a visit to the FMEU meant a trip to the Lake Wheeler farms in Raleigh, N.C. Even for students at NC State, getting to and from the feed mill is no quick trip.

With their first grant, Fahrenholz and Herchler decided that instead of having to bring students to the feed mill, they’d bring the feed mill to the students.

A great idea in 2017, it’s become even more important since early 2020.

The original goal of making the feed mill accessible for students and others around North Carolina was long-sighted. Now that in-person tours are on hiatus in response to COVID-19, only essential workers can be on site at the FMEU.

Thanks to the DELTA Grants program, that doesn’t mean you can’t visit the mill.

From virtual to augmented reality

With a virtual tour and video content under their belts, Fahrenholz and Herchler applied for a second DELTA grant, this time to create interactive and AR materials to help online students understand feed formulation.

You might be familiar with AR on shopping apps and sites that let you “see” how an object (or, now, multiple objects) will look in your space. From virtually trying on clothes to testing a piece of art on a wall, AR is becoming part of how we shop.

Could the same technology help learners, in college and beyond, understand how machinery works? That’s exactly what Fahrenholz and Herchler have been asking – and answering.

They’ve taken their AR ‘objects’ to professional meetings, trade shows and Extension programs to show participants how large, complex feed milling equipment works.

Like the virtual tour, the second round of collaboration is helping a lot more people than the original audience.

The next Inning

So, how are Fahrenholz and Herchler planning to solve the virtual lab conundrum?

The current project will develop virtual labs for an introductory course in feed manufacturing and technology. The goal is to explore different technologies that will give students in the online version of the course the opportunity to learn material taught in in-person labs.

Just like past projects, Fahrenholz and Herchler are looking ahead so their virtual labs have the broadest possible impact. Hurricanes, snow days and make-up work are other potential uses for virtual labs. Beyond the classroom, virtual labs could be part of NC State Extension programs for youth, industry and other groups.

“Virtual labs are especially important for this year and beyond,” Herchler explained.

Fahrenholz and Herchler thought through how to match up their teaching needs with wider needs in CALS and NC State Extension. Their ideas embrace all students, “traditional and non-traditional,” as they put it in their proposal, and the best ways to reach them where they are with practical, hands-on learning.

There are a lot of reasons Fahrenholz and Herchler look forward to each DELTA Grants cycle. Maybe the most important one is that collaborating with DELTA helps them do their best so others can do theirs.

As Donnie Wrights put it, “Collaboration is key to all DELTA grants.”

“DELTA grants challenge us to explore our most creative ideas for teaching – whether it’s for the classroom or more far-reaching audiences through our Extension programs,” said Herchler.

“Collaboration is key
to all DELTA grants.

“We continue to be excited about spreading the reach of our programs by making materials more available and more engaging to our audiences, including traditional and non-traditional students, as well as industry professionals that we can reach through Extension,” added Fahrenholz.

These two aren’t rookies anymore. Paired with DELTA, they’re a dream team ready to learn from past successes and add to what they’ve already built.

Keep up with the feed mill’s news and projects. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram and subscribe to their newsletter. We also recommend taking an FMEU tour from the comfort of your porch, couch or favorite chair.