Ag Science = Exciting Opportunities

By Seanica Reineke

By 2050, it is projected that more than 9 billion people will inhabit the planet, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR) Dean Steven Waller, who said the job of feeding those 9 billion will be on the shoulders of the global community.

Right now, nearly 6.9 billion people live on Earth. In order to feed an extra 2 billion people, Waller said "we will have to become more efficient and more productive in what we do," which will mean looking to the STEM disciplines- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Waller said an appreciation of science is needed to encourage Americans to seek careers in the STEM areas, and that begins with the youth. "The young scientists that are going to feed the world are here already, if you think about them being 1, 2, 3 or 4 years old," said Waller. "We just need to be sure that all of those students that have an interest... have every opportunity to be exposed to science, to get excited about science and to learn from scientists."

Getting young people interested in science is a lifelong process that begins with passion: passion for science and passion for asking questions. That is what Waller wants from CASNR faculty, and he hopes to see that in all elementary and secondary educators, as well as in parents. He believes asking
questions and learning about science can be a joint learning venture. Waller said it's important for parents and children to ask questions together- and find answers.

Programs Engaging Students and Teachers
The CASNR faculty works with fourth graders in Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) by embedding the science curriculum into everyday school activities and blending it with the schools' standards. Waller said it is both exciting and a bit challenging to provide a curriculum that fulfills the expectations of the school system and, at the same time, exposes young people to science as it relates to agriculture and natural resources. In LPS math classes, elementary students are using agricultural examples, such as converting square feet into acres. Waller said the students begin to connect what they learn in the classroom to what they see in the world. Even more exciting to Waller is the fact that they can relate their school lessons to the food they eat.

Dr. Steven Waller

Dr. Steven Waller

Students are not the only ones learning from using agriculture in the classroom. Teachers are, too. Waller said as time goes by, it becomes less likely that educators have been on a farm or really understand agriculture, which is why UNL has a program called NU-Teach. One of the only collaborations of its kind, NU-Teach is a partnership between the UNL Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Human Sciences and CASNR. It was created by UNL faculty and administrators with the goal of developing a stronger academic program to prepare future teachers.

"We need role models in the STEM fields," Waller said. "We've got to be able to convince students of any background, of any gender, of any cultural upbringing that they can be scientists."

Paying it Forward
Part of CASNR's agenda is to provide an agricultural education to a variety of students who may not have been exposed to agriculture otherwise.

"My goal is to get the right faculty in place, and get out of their way, and let them do what they need to do," Waller said. "If we've matched them with students that have a passion and an interest and a capacity to do great things, then our role... in the college administration is just to make sure that there are no obstacles for them to be successful."

One way CASNR is providing this education to a diverse group of students is through the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program, which includes student scholarships, support for classes, lectures, entrepreneurship training, internship placement and student travel. CASNR received this $20 million donation from Paul Engler, a native Nebraskan and NU alum, in March of 2010. The donation is the largest monetary gift the college has ever received.

Waller said the Engler program models the college's philosophy about lifelong learning, going from childhood to adulthood. More importantly, he said, it has elevated the conversation around agriculture in Nebraska because people viewed that as a significant benchmark of excellence.

After six consecutive years of growth, Waller said parents and students see CASNR as a destination, not an alternative. The college saw an increase of 7.1 percent in enrollment during the fall, 2010 semester, making total college enrollment 1,882 students. That is an all-time high for CASNR, and Waller said it's a "validation of the importance of what we do," but also a reflection of the diversification that has taken place.

Eighty-eight percent of students enrolled in CASNR come from Nebraska, and Waller relates that to stakeholders around the state being optimistic and talking about their excitement for the college and agriculture's future. The college offers a range of degree programs, both traditional and non-traditional. Waller said a lot of the growth has been in non-traditional areas, such as golf management, but traditional degree programs, such as animal science, have grown, too.

Waller said students have a responsibility to give back to the community once they graduate. In his eyes, that is when true growth of the college happens because it magnifies the college multiple times over. "I want to be seen as a college that cares for its students, one student at a time, that every student has value, to make sure that every student has achieved hopefully more than they thought they could have when they came; that they contribute over time; that they're part of the ongoing conversation about their future and their children's future; that they're engaged citizens; and that they have a sense of service," he said.

Broadening the University's Reach
Some of the most fascinating things happening in the United States and the world, according to Waller, have grown out of agriculture. One example is Global Positioning System (GPS). Even advances in genetics have grown out of agriculture, he said. Now is the time when everything is lining up for great advancements in agriculture, according to Waller, who said CASNR is positioned to be part of those advances.

UNL as a whole is prepared for those advances, too. As UNL joins the Big Ten, it will become part of a conference with 12 universities, eight of those being land-grant universities- which are institutions designated by their state legislatures to receive benefits of the 1862 and 1890 Morrill Acts. Those acts were provided for people in the working class to learn about agriculture, among other subjects, and gain an education they could use. According to Waller, the Big Ten is a core of universities in the United States that effectively define the agricultural research, education and extension programs nationally, and Nebraska now will be part of it.

In Waller's opinion, the future of science and agriculture is one of rapid change embedded in science that will make educational institutions, especially universities, focus on preparing students for work in a continuously changing environment. He said there will be new discoveries that no
one can anticipate right now, so students need to learn how to think, solve problems, interact with others and serve others.

These changes will come at a fast pace, which will influence advances in science and agriculture that will create solutions for feeding the world. Waller said these advances will be accomplished by people from all areas and different approaches, including those from humanities, arts, sciences, business and agriculture.

Currently, other parts of the world have more sustainable agriculture because they have found practices over thousands of years that make them sustainable, but on a small scale. Waller calls it "subsistence farming to provide food and fiber for a family, not hundreds of people or more." Nutrient value, nutrient efficiency of plants, water use and water efficiency are all important factors when looking at the responsibility of feeding 2 billion more people in the coming years, according to Waller. This is a global challenge, and he said it will not be solved by growing more in the United States, but by finding a "global solution to a global problem."

What can influence this change? Waller believes behavioral changes will have to occur in regard to the way people view their food, what they eat and what their children will eat, and it is going to take time. "Agriculture has to be more of an area of excitement than one that people assume is at the grocery store," said Waller. This will happen through conversations. "Strategic discussions are critical, not only for those of us that are trying to provide opportunities for our students, but it's equally important for our students to have their own conversations about what they envision the future to be."


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