Virginia Tech is a member of a nationwide collaborative investigating innovative ways to develop the future workforce in the fields of food, agriculture, natural, and human sciences by leveraging the nimble and innovative framework of honors education. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced members of this collaborative as a recipient of a three-year, $749,977 grant to support these initiatives.

Paul Knox, founding dean of the Virginia Tech Honors College who serves as a co-principal project director, will collaborate with a team of leading land-grant and minority-serving institutions in food, agriculture, natural, human sciences programs, including official host institutions South Dakota State University, Oklahoma State University, Texas A&M University, and Virginia Tech. In total, 14 institutions will be part of a nationwide network designed to develop innovative approaches for a Grand Challenge Scholars Institute and to empower systems thinking and career readiness in the food, agriculture, and natural and human sciences fields.

Paul Knox (at left), founding dean of the Honors College, and Susan Sumner, associate dean and director of academic programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are co-principal project directors for The Justice Challenge.

"High-impact, collaborative discovery experiences must be hallmarks of honors education,” Knox said. The program draws on lessons learned from the Virginia Tech Calhoun Honors Discovery Program to build The Justice Challenge, including the importance of collaborative experiences and robust transdisciplinary frameworks to addressing the themes of food, climate, and sustainable agriculture. “Imagine every honors student has access to the top content experts and educators in the nation/world. Further imagine that they have regular access to one another, collectively cultivating a comprehensive worldview, unrestricted by geography or financial need.”

Knox said this vision was the driving force for members of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Council on Honors Education Student Opportunities Collaborative in the grant project.

Over the course of the three-year project titled “The Justice Challenge: Engaging Students in the Future of Food, Climate, and Sustainable Agriculture,” participating institutions will collaborate in exploring an annual grand challenge theme related to Department of Agriculture priority areas. Food justice, climate justice, and sustainable agriculture are the yearly themes.

Each year, a new cohort of honors students will participate in the Grand Challenge Scholars Institute, which begins with a colloquium, introducing the students to the theme and to each other. Then, students will participate in their choice of a signature experience — field experience, design challenge, or hackathon.

Each one-year Institute concludes with a conference to showcase the students’ work and to enhance networks between students and leading experts in the fields.

Susan Sumner, associate dean and director of academic programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, also serves as a co-principal project director for The Justice Challenge. Sumner noted the potential of this grant to form these student-expert networks: “This grant offers the opportunity to expose honors students to food, agriculture, natural, and human sciences experts who teach and research food justice, climate justice, and sustainable agriculture.”

Knox added, “As a result of these interactions, honors graduates will enter the workforce better prepared to address the world’s greatest challenges with empathy and with an understanding of the complex interdependencies involved.”

The overall objective of the project is to create a more diverse and well-prepared set of graduates in the food, agriculture, natural, and human sciences disciplines who are ready to tackle the complex challenges of today. Graduates of the program will be ready to enter the workforce with both an innovative skill set and mindset — essential in today’s world.

The project is expected to bring together more than 500 undergraduate students from across the country. Other participating institutions include the University of Toledo, University of Louisville, University of Montana, Virginia State University, Northern Illinois University, California Lutheran University, Binghamton University-SUNY, Southern Illinois University, University of Illinois-Chicago, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

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