CAES Undergraduate Research Scholar Alaina Brock sets up an experiment in her lab in Carver Hall.

N.C. 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, fittingly called 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 and specialists with Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T.

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

Misty Blue Terry, Ph.D., (left) assists a student during a computer training session conducted in association with a 4-H leadership program and Google on A&T’s campus.

“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., SAPLINGS program director and dean of the college. “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.”

For the five-year project, 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 N.C. A&T’s lead.

“This program is comprehensive, inclusive and forward-focused,” said Tonya Smith-Jackson, provost of N.C. A&T. “Drawing on our core values of education and lifelong learning, it 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, while others are learning are learning climate-smart agricultural techniques on A&T’s University Farm, and 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.”

SAPLINGS Project Co-Directors from NCA&T

  • Antoine Jerrod Alston- Associate Dean Academics/CAES (Module lead)
  • Audrey Dentith- Director, Center for Teaching Excellence (Module lead)
  • Arnab Bhowmik- Assistant Prof. Soil Science/Natural Resources
  • Chantel Y Simpson- Assistant Prof., Agricultural Education
  • Derrick J Coble- Assistant Prof., Animal Sciences
  • Fafanyo Asiseh- Associate Prof., Business and Economics
  • Guochen Yang- Prof., Plant Biotechnology/Natural Resources
  • Jennifer Beasley- Assistant Prof., Family and Consumer Sciences
  • John Ng’ombe- Assistant Prof., Agribusiness
  • Lauren Hargrave- Cooperative Extension Program Evaluation & Accountability Coordinator
  • Lauren Mayo- Assistant Prof., Animal Sciences
  • Lijun Wang- Prof. Biological Engineering (Module lead)
  • Misty A. Blue-Terry- 4-H Cooperative Extension Specialist (Module lead)
  • Mohamed Ahmedna, Dean/CAES
  • Niroj Aryal- Associate Prof., Biological Engineering (Module lead)
  • Obed Quaicoe- Assistant Prof., Agribusiness (Module lead)
  • Paula Elleen Faulkner- Prof. Agricultural Education (Module lead)
  • Shengmin Sang- Prof. Food Science/Family and Consumer Sciences (Module lead)