Middle Tennessee State University and University of Mississippi faculty and student researchers are collaborating on a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant project involving climate change, conservation practices and helping train the next generation of environmental scientists and engineers.
The three-year, $272,555 USDA grant is a research effort for MTSU Department of Geosciences environmental science students and University of Mississippi engineering students to study the role and potential effects of climate change on conservation practices and future 21stcentury agricultural challenges.
“This is a tremendous research opportunity for our geosciences students and faculty and the makings of an excellent partnership between two outstanding universities,” said Bud Fischer, dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. “We all look forward to the results.”
Racha El Kadiri, MTSU geosciences assistant professor and an environmental scientist, is the project director. She is an environmental scientist who applies machine learning, remote sensing, geographical information systems and computational methods to address a wide range of hydrological and environmental problems.
MTSU interim geosciences chair Henrique Momm and University of Mississippi Department of Civil Engineeringassociate professor Cristian Surbeck are the project co-directors.
Momm has experience with integrating remote sensing technology, computational sciences and watershed modeling for improved understanding of watershed systems and the associated processes. Surbeck specializes in environmental and water resources engineering and has been involved in other USDA grant projects.
While there are many studies focusing on the effects of climate change on crop yield in regard to the observed and projected temperature changes in the 21stcentury, El Kadiri said there “have not been enough studies on how effective the conservation practices we are implementing today will be in the future.”
“We are attempting to fill this knowledge gap by using machine learning and watershed modeling to study the linkages between a changing climate and the effectiveness of conservation practices,” she added. “The results would be a step toward an adaptation to climate change, improving food security in the 21st century and preserving national water and soil resources.”
The study will be completed on various pilot watersheds from around the nation (Southeast, Midwest and West Coast).
“The ultimate goal of this research is the optimization of the conservation practices in space (different U.S environments) and in time (in response to a changing climate),” El Kadiri said.
El Kadiri said the education component will involve the creation of curriculum for MTSU environmental scientists and University of Mississippi engineers “to better understand the environmental challenges and uncertainties of agriculture in the 21st century.”
“Environmental science students and engineers are traditionally not trained in agronomy and agronomists are traditionally not environmental scientists and engineers,” she said. “This will act to bridge the gap between these two fields at our institutions, accomplishing this through research, curriculum development and experiential learning experiences.”
At the University of Mississippi, Surbeck said they will be “aiming to use data and computer models to predict how the management of agricultural lands can affect pollution to receiving water bodies and partnering with the USDA National Sedimentation Lab in Oxford, Mississippi, so there will be a very real-life application to our research.”
One University of Mississippi graduate student will help analyze the model results and plan a new course “so junior- and senior-level students will also benefit from the project because a new course will be developed for them to take,” Surbeck said.
The course, titled “Sustainable Natural Resources Management for Agriculture,” will include tours of agricultural watersheds, work with a computer model and lead students to know how watersheds should be managed to protect receiving water bodies.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)