Science education is an important issue for the United States these days. On international measures American students are falling behind and many, by the time they reach high school, have lost interest in science. But global competitiveness requires a focus on science and technology for the future. And the group stepping up to answer the challenge has a long history of providing experience-based education for science - look no further than 4-H.
Putting together their heads, hearts, hands and health, as it were, the organization and a range of supporters have come together in a new movement they're calling Generation: Ag. As part of the rollout of the new effort, the group held an event at the Danforth Plant Science Center last week in St. Louis, Mo.
A distinguished panel of speakers was on hand to characterize the challenge facing global agriculture. "We cannot overstate the case that to thrive in the global economy, our children and grandchildren need science and technology," says James Borel, group vice president-agriculture, DuPont.
For example, Borel points out that in 2008 meat demand rose 22%, corn demand was up 37%, soybean demand rose 50%, but cropland only increased by 6%. To answer the challenge of a world population that will grow to more than 9 billion by 2050, the ag industry is going to need plenty of scientists.
Adds Carl Casale, executive vice president, Monsanto: "Population growth is not just going to rise by 40% by 2050, but those people are going to want the same diet we do with more protein. That's going to require greater grain production."
Meeting that need will require a greater investment in science, but will there be scientists to fill the role? A recent National Academy of Sciences study called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," points to the challenges ahead. Referencing that study, Donald Floyd, president and CEO of the National 4-H Council, notes there has been a "cultural shift and that there will be a critical shortage of ag scientists." Floyd says the group is aiming for 1 million new young scientists for agriculture and they want to get young people excited about a career in agriculture.
Project Pathways is launched
Rajiv Shah, USDA Under Secretary of Research, talked about the challenges and opportunities he sees ahead for agricultural technology, and the need for scientists to meet that need.
Turning to the Web, 4-H is pulling together decades of experience in the area of "non-formal education" to create a new, interactive tool they're calling Project Pathways. The tools available will allow students to learn new science, enhance what they know from projects they've produced and interact with 4-H members around the globe.
Still in development, the program will offer a high level of new-media support for programs that have long been the staple for the organization. The content-rich environment aims to unleash the core strength of the organization.
Students involved in a project will be able to tap resources throughout the organization through a "community of learners" even for clubs in remotea areas, according to Bob Horton, professor of educational design, Ohio State University.
This expanding core of knowledge, resources and activities builds on the history of non-formal, experiential learning 4-H has popularized over its history. Horton envisions a growing suite of capabilities with this new Web-based approach.
During the event that launched the Project Pathways program, Rajiv Shah, USDA's Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, made his first public appearance. Fresh into the job from a stint at the Gates Foundation, Shah admits he has more to learn about agriculture, but sees the potential of science and technology to meet a growing world population's demand.
"There's a strong base of universities and research and we want to build on that strong core," Shah notes "And what I lack in knowledge I make up in energy and commitment to these issues."
He noted key areas where science and technology must work.
"First is global health. We spend a lot of time talking about this and we want to help save children's lives around the world," Shah says.
Second is agriculture and agricultural development, which he recognizes as valuable for developing countries if they're to have a strong future. "We recognize the fundamental nature of agriculture," Shah says. "A diversified and effective economy requires improvement in core agricultural production and productivity to develop a modern economy."
And third is education. Shah notes the importance of educating kids in science and math and the "great new technology of the future." Adding that this will be "important to our competitiveness and success."
The organization has 6 million members and of those 5 million are in 8th grade or below. As Jennifer Sirangleo, senior vice president with 4-H, notes: "By the time students are in 8th grade we know whether they've decided to choose a career in science." Who better to promote and foster that move toward a science-based career than 4-H?
You can see samples of the new Web environment by visiting www.4-H.org. While still in development, the new approach offers plenty of potential to expand the organization's mission and meet the need for more ag scientists in the future.