A recurring theme among many in the poultry and agriculture communities is the growing lack of awareness that today’s younger generation has regarding the food supply chain. The concern is that most students have very little understanding of what it takes to produce and deliver the cornucopia of wholesome, nutritious, safe, and abundantly available foods that we as a nation and world consume. When asked, many students simply assume that food comes from the grocery store, and in the worst case, some may even say “the refrigerator.” The lack of general knowledge of the significant gains and improvements that have been achieved in food production and agriculture through research and development is therefore not surprising.
To paraphrase comments from an open forum at a recent U.S. Poultry Processors Conference, the real question becomes, “how, as an agricultural community, do we connect with and educate today’s younger generation of students?” Traditional K-12 agricultural education programs can certainly play an important role, but often these targeted efforts fail to connect with the general student population as a whole. The good news is there are several ways that the agricultural community and poultry sector, in particular, can have a broader impact.
1) Engage the students! One excellent way to do this is to volunteer on career days and with other industry interaction programs with local schools. Describe the work you do individually and how it fits into the broader picture of your company and the impact it has on the supply of wholesome and nutritious food. Simply having an online presence (website, Facebook page, YouTube video) is not a viable strategy for connecting with students. They want to interact.
2) Tell the Agriculture Story! It may surprise many of us who regularly work in agriculture and food processing, but many students simply have no idea of what is involved in growing crops and raising animals. So, tell them what is involved. Today’s consumers are more curious than ever about where their food comes from, and we have a great story to tell.
3) Impress that Agriculture and Poultry is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)! We may sell ourselves short in this area because in reality every component of poultry and food production and processing involves some or all of the STEM components. We may also need to educate the teachers and administrators. This is often best accomplished by providing tangible examples of how each of us uses STEM in our daily jobs, and the impact this has on the overall availability of nutritious food.
4) Consider Internships and Mentorships! Explore the possibility of developing meaningful internships and mentorships for high school students to work alongside seasoned professionals in the poultry industry. Provide opportunities to experience all aspects of production and processing, and help them develop an understanding of the linkages and challenges across the entire process. Always encourage students to think creatively and explore solutions and instill in them the possibility that as members of the next generation, they could be the ones to solve some of the key challenges facing the industry.
5) Partner and Support others doing the same! This involves finding a way to leverage resources (both people and funds) with others in agriculture and poultry to support broader initiatives in education and outreach.
It is important to realize that all of the activities listed above will require sustained involvement in order to realize any tangible results. In some cases, it will be difficult for any single organization or individual to commit to this level of sustained engagement, and this is where partnerships will play an important role. As part of Georgia Tech, education is inherent in many of the activities spearheaded by the Agricultural Technology Research Program (ATRP). Unfortunately, given the significant reductions in funding over the last five years, we had to reduce dedicated educational outreach activities; however, individuals within ATRP have continued to work with students and teachers on many levels.
ATRP continues to host elementary and middle school group tours with grade-relevant educational programming. In addition, researchers have partnered with local high schools to serve as mentors for technology- and science-related internships. Most recently researchers have had the opportunity to participate in the Direct-2-Discovery program (www.directtodiscovery.org), which connects classrooms with researchers through high bandwidth video conferencing technologies. Students can “peer” into the research facilities, participate in the design and execution of experiments, and dialogue interactively with researchers on coordinated topics ranging from nanotechnology to environmental engineering. This is a truly unique opportunity to inspire students in critical STEM areas. Extending these opportunities to students across the entire state positions Georgia as an innovator in education, while grounding these fundamental STEM principles in real-world agriculture, food, and poultry processing applications will ensure Georgia remains an innovator in agriculture.
So, get involved and take advantage of those opportunities that are best suited to your unique positions within agriculture and poultry production and processing. Every little bit counts, and in the aggregate, it will be the sum of these little bits that will be our best hope in having a significant impact on our students and the future of poultry and agriculture.
Doug Britton, Ph.D.
ATRP Program Manager