Attracting future students to agriculture and MTSU’s Fermentation Science Program — that’s the objective of a new U.S. Department of Agriculture grant collaboration between the university and Columbia State and Motlow State community colleges.
It’s a three-year, $300,000 grant proposed by MTSU’s Tony Johnston, who is partnering with Columbia State’s Karen Kendall-Fite and Motlow’s Nathan Fisher, along with faculty from all three schools.
The grant is designed to increase awareness of agriculture and introduce fermentation concepts into lower division undergraduate math and science classes at Columbia State and Motlow, and drive fermentation science as a career option.
“Students in general aren’t aware of what fermentation science is, much less that it’s actually agricultural,” said Johnston, professor and director of the MTSU Fermentation Science Program. “The grant seeks to get more students interested in agriculture as a career.”
“Ultimately, the objective is to increase undergraduate enrollment in MTSU’s Fermentation Science degree program,” Johnston added.
Columbia State President Janet Smith said the grant “will give our students exciting opportunities in fermentation science that would not otherwise be available to them without this funding. The grant will also allow us to continue to build upon our excellent partnership with MTSU.”
A Columbia State associate professor in biology and an MTSU alumna, Kendall-Fite said “career growth for our students and economic growth in our community are at the heart of our mission as a community college and this grant provides opportunity to achieve both.”
“Motlow is excited to partner with MTSU on this USDA grant project focused on fermentation science,” said Tammy O’Dell, director of grants. “This work involves the implementation of fermentation-specific information into the curriculum of organic chemistry, microbiology and mathematics courses to train students to understand the science and practice of fermentation better.”
Fisher is an instructor in chemistry at Motlow. He is a former MTSU student, tutor, undergraduate research assistant and chemistry adjunct faculty member.
The value of the grant extends beyond the expansion of enrollment in the MTSU’s program, Johnston said.
“Agriculture is an applied STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, but it is not traditionally viewed this way,” he said.
“The grant provides an opportunity to connect the dots between STEM courses and agriculture and raise awareness of and increase the potential for a student to become interested in the applied STEM career that is fermentation science.”
Motlow and Columbia State STEM faculty will be trained in problem-based learning methods to work with their students, and the impact of their students’ awareness of fermentation science as a STEM concentration and career will be tracked.
Johnston said the grant recognizes the overwhelming support the USDA offers to the 106 agriculture programs at land-grant colleges and universities and provides grant opportunities solely for the 56 USDA-certified agriculture programs at non-land-grant schools in the U.S.
“It is estimated that 45 percent of all agricultural undergraduate degrees are awarded by nonland-grant institutions that offer agriculture degrees, which underlines the importance of these institutions to our country,” he said.
Johnston said part of the grant will go toward classroom equipment — smartphones and scientific equipment — for Motlow and Columbia State students to learn about chemistry, biology and math through applications of fermentation in their freshman- and sophomore-level courses.
Another part of the funds will pay to train Motlow and Columbia State faculty and to train MTSU math professor Ginger Holmes-Rowell as an independent evaluator.
Johnston said it will be up to Motlow and Columbia State as to how many faculty will participate and how many class sections be involved.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)