N.C. A&T Receives $18.1M to Lead Major Part of USDA NEXTGEN Agriculture Program

By Lydian Bernhardt / 06/21/2023 College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences

Alaina Brock, a 2020 Cheatham-White Scholar studying food science in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, works in a College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences laboratory.

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (June 21, 2023) – North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University will lead a major project to build and sustain students’ interest and participation in agriculture as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new initiative, “From Learning to Leading: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Food and Agriculture Professionals (NEXTGEN).”

N.C. A&T’s project – SAPLINGS (System Approach to Promote Learning and Innovation for the Next GenerationS) – is designed to grow the number of underrepresented minority students in the food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences. It will involve faculty and staff from each department of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES) and specialists with Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T.  

For the five-year, $18.1 million project, CAES will partner with six other 1890s universities, national organizations, USDA, private companies and fellow land-grant partner North Carolina State University to engage K-12 students, their parents and their teachers. College students will be engaged, too, and receive funding toward stipends, tuition, internships and mentoring to enhance their success and readiness to enter the workforce. The project is funded through USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

“The current shortage of students in the food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences, and the limited diversity in the skilled food and agriculture work force, are serious threats to U.S. agriculture,” said Mohamed Ahmedna, Ph.D., CAES dean. “Our program will help mitigate these threats by bringing industry and education partners together to build programs that engage, support and develop students to be successful in these fields.”

Such organizations as 4-H, Farm Foundation, SAS, USDA, John Deere and Microsoft will partner with universities, including N.C. State, Virginia State, Tuskegee University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Florida A&M, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Fort Valley State, to deliver innovative curricula centering around experiential learning and outreach under A&T’s lead.

“This program is comprehensive, inclusive and forward-focused,” said Tonya Smith-Jackson, Ph.D., A&T provost and executive vice chancellor of Academic Affairs. “It draws on our core values of education and lifelong learning, and has the potential to benefit thousands of students across the entire educational spectrum, from youth clubs and elementary school to university graduate programs.”

In various parts of the program, which will run concurrently, middle and high school students will use drones, robotics and mobile STEM classrooms, such as A&T’s Innovation Station, to learn about the technical side of agriculture, while college students will be learning to develop their ability to start, and grow, their own agricultural businesses. Others may be learning climate-smart agricultural techniques on A&T’s University Farm, or discovering ways to use plants’ medicinal properties to heal illnesses.

High school and college students, university faculty and young farmers alike will learn ways that data analytics, artificial intelligence and data science incorporate into food, agriculture, natural resource and health education.

Faculty at all seven partner institutions will receive training in ways to improve student experiences and improve the educational environment, while students will also learn from program-sponsored workshops and seminars. High school teachers will receive professional development in food and agriculture related STEMS while parents will be engaged through tailored outreach and marketing programs.

“By the end of the five years, our impact will be felt,” said Ahmedna. “This program spans the whole spectrum of agriculture, including emerging areas, including all ages of students and both land-grant faculty and industry. Nobody was left out. We thank the USDA for their vision and support, and we’re excited for the possibilities.”

Media Contact Information: llbernhardt@ncat.edu

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