Growing up, the question of the day often started with “why” or “how” because I loved discovering things. Though my specific interests morphed from archaeology to geology to biology, I knew I wanted to be a scientist since the 5th grade. In college, I chose to study biology, which exposed me to many different aspects of the field. College was the springboard that sharpened my focus and led me to becoming the ecosystem ecologist I am today. Recognizing National College Signing Day, I hope that today’s inbound students consider studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects to help meet our future agricultural challenges.
So many things start with just the sheer recognition that much of our future professional workforce is dependent upon people who are trained in the STEM fields. There are now a significant number of farmers who use high technology and remote sensing data for precision crop management. That means there are opportunities for people in professions like computer science, engineering, and environmental science to help change the world. At USDA, our scientists are doing everything from developing satellites to measure the moisture content of soil from 50 miles above the earth, to using drones to determine the most efficient and environmentally responsible way to water and fertilize crops.
At USDA, we’re looking at how we can promote the pipeline of STEM students across the board from, as we often say, “K through 80,” which is lifelong learning.
USDA supports education in all 50 states and territories through a variety of programs and grants, such as our curriculum-based “Ag in the Classroom” program, and our investment in 4-H clubs. Through our National Institute for Food and Agriculture, we have numerous grant programs that specifically target higher education. For example, the Higher Education Challenge Grants program specifically encourages innovative projects that support agricultural science education. And NIFA’s Education and Literacy initiative tries to bring ideas and support for educational activities into our own science and research grants. Also, almost every agency promotes internships that bring interested students and teachers to our laboratories to get hands-on research experience.
Whether a community college or an ‘Ivy League’ school, we congratulate all of the students that are taking the next step in their careers by going to college. And for those that are undecided on their course of study, I urge you to consider careers in agriculture. STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, so your chances are great to join the next generation of food, ag and natural resource scientists. You may be the creator of the new innovation in agriculture the world is waiting for.