This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
Developing a rapid, inexpensive biosensor to detect salmonella on vegetables; expanding understanding of the antimicrobial properties of nutmeg; finding a non-invasive method to test for glucose levels.
I recently met this awesome group of young women at a “STEM” Workshop held in History Park in San Jose, California. “STEM” refers to the combined fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – fields in which women have historically been underrepresented, but fields that are also vital to food and agricultural science. In programs like this, I’m encouraged to see that this situation might be changing. More and more, students from all walks of life are realizing the value of a quality STEM education, and the fulfilling careers to which it can lead.
This forum was powerful, not just because of these extraordinary women, but because I also met some of their parents, mentors, and teachers and was able to see the impact that this kind of program can have on everyone involved. The participating students sat at the front table with Dr. Belinda Schmahl and me, while the other attendees sat in the audience. Each student presented a quick synopsis of their project, which led to further discussions about the scope and resources needed for the research.
One remarkable success story I heard about involved providing students with access to a laboratory where they can do cell culture, biochemistry, and DNA sequencing. The project started in a garage, but with donated equipment has grown to be housed in a renovated warehouse and today is a core component of learning through these programs.
When asked what these students would like to see in their schools, their responses were clear and direct. They would like to have more experiential, or “hands on” learning. They would like to “make the knowledge more real,” or understand how learned ideas and concepts can be applied to their daily lives, not only in science, but in history and math as well. They also like to see passion and enthusiasm from their teachers. Six students expressed interest in learning about neurobiology – it’s that kind of interest that we must nurture by providing further learning opportunities for exploration.
At USDA we’re working to expand opportunities to broaden access to STEM education to all groups, stressing its importance to food, agriculture, and natural resources. The Division of Community and Education at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture awards Higher Education Challenge Grants to college and university faculty to improve teaching in the food and agricultural sciences by enhancing curricula, increasing faculty professional development, and encouraging student experiential learning opportunities. Through programs like this, we’re working to train the scientists today to be leaders in food and agricultural science tomorrow.