The world's population is on track to grow by 2 billion people by 2050.
With that in mind, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources are looking for ways that will improve how farmers and producers feed an estimated 9 billion people.
Promoting understanding of agriculture and the science behind it is also growing in importance, UNL Vice Chancellor for IANR Ronnie Green told the NU Board of Regents earlier this year.
“One of the big challenges the ag and food system has right now is people are so far removed from the production sector,” Green said. “They don’t understand where their food comes from, or how it’s produced, or what the technologies are that we use.”
IANR is working to change that.
Last year, the institute headquartered on UNL’s East Campus received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to launch the National Agricultural Literacy Center, helping to identify new ways to teach K-12 students about where food comes from.
Chuck Hibberd, the dean and director for UNL Extension, said four faculty members have been hired at IANR since 2012 to focus on how agricultural science can better be incorporated into classrooms.
“We want to create new ways to engage students, the public, stakeholders like commodity boards, to have a conversation around science and ag literacy,” Hibberd said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges we have right now -- people do not understand agriculture so they jump to conclusions that might not be accurate.”
As part of 36 new hires since 2012, four faculty members are dedicated to teaching science in the context of agriculture.
Green said the number of tenure track faculty at IANR has grown by 20 percent over recent years, even as writers, editors and designers were eliminated as part of the institute's share of budget cuts at UNL.
When the USDA learned of the IANR initiative, it invited the UNL division to submit a proposal to become the National Agricultural Literacy Center -- a supplement to the Agriculture in the Classroom program started by the USDA in 1981.
UNL emerged at the top of a competitive process, said Victoria LeBeaux, the community and education program leader in the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Launched last summer, the National Agricultural Literacy Center has already begun working toward three goals in transforming Ag in the Classroom, said Cory Forbes, director of the center.
Faculty members have already started developing lesson plans and instructional materials that will be accessible by any teacher in the U.S.
“We want to provide content science teachers can use in their classes to teach biology, chemistry or other sciences through an ag or natural resources lens,” Forbes said.
This summer, the center will hold a pilot program to pair UNL researchers and current and future high school teachers, giving them first-hand experience in the research taking place within agriculture and natural resources, and the opportunity to create instructional material for high school students taking science courses.
Meanwhile, faculty members at IANR are researching how topics like agriculture are best taught and learned, Forbes said, and developing a framework that outlines the best practices.
Finally, center personnel will create professional development opportunities for Ag in the Classroom participants around the country in a “train the trainer model.”
Forbes said the early work of the center will have a “much broader national impact.”
“We don’t just want to be known as a crucial source of scientific knowledge and information, but we also want to be supporting students and the public to use that knowledge -- and use scientific knowledge in general -- in a practical way in their lives,” he said.
Ultimately, Green said the center is aiming to transform STEM education -- science, technology, engineering and math -- into STEAM.
“A, as in agriculture, needs to be an important part of that,” Green said.
Both Green and Hibberd said they would like to see the national center expand.
“The center has a similar mission to advance the knowledge and engagement of science broadly and internationally to other institutes at the University of Nebraska, but we do not have the same level of funding,” Hibberd said.
LeBeaux said the USDA will evaluate progress and determine if the grant will be continued -- or expanded -- in the future.
Green said as the world's population grows, it is important that consumers understand the processes by which their food comes from farm to table.
“They don’t have to be scientists, but they can trust that it’s right and good,” Green said.