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Inspiring the Future

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Posted Dec. 26, 2012

Years of educational activities at the Noble Research Institute crystallize into the formation of Noble Academy. Agricultural education will never be the same.
noble academy
The Noble Research Institute has launched a new educational initiative called Noble Academy. Through this program, the organization hopes to help reverse the trend in which youth have little knowledge of food production or agricultural science. Chalk illustration by Katie Brown.
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Pick any day and there's bound to be a student tour snaking its way through the hallways and corridors of the Noble Research Institute. No matter their educational status - elementary to college - their reactions are always the same.

They run the paces in a laboratory, learning about the nature of research critical to the future of agriculture. They gawk at the size and complexity of Noble's research greenhouse (one of the largest in North America). And inevitably end their day in a grassy field, seeing the fruits of the organization's labor.

With so many students, someone's bound to say something remarkable.

On a perfectly normal tour last spring, a fifth grader made an unusual statement. When learning that hamburger meat originated from cows, the young man balked and said in a huff, "I would never get my meat from a cow. I'd just buy it from the grocery store."

"The story would be funny if it wasn't so common," said Bill Buckner, president and CEO. "The reality is that many people, specifically our youth, are detached from agriculture. They just don't know where their food comes from. It is troubling. It's also dangerous."

As it turns out, the cow-hamburger conundrum was not an isolated incident. Through recent months, the stories of agricultural unawareness have accumulated. Strawberries come from plants? You can make clothes from cotton? And these comments originate from youth growing up in "rural" America.

Tyler Norvell, former vice president of public policy for Oklahoma Farm Bureau and current executive director of the Oklahoma Youth Expo, the world's largest livestock show, can envision the potential outcomes if this trend continues unchecked.

"Today's young people will be tomorrow's leaders," he said. "If they are unaware of agriculture and the process of producing our food, agriculture could face unnecessary regulation and hindrances to production. Could you imagine the United States importing food because we weren't allowed to produce it? Americans need to wake up. They don't realize the potential negative outcomes if we don't educate our youth."

A brief history
For most people - especially those in the big square states in the middle of the country - the concept of agriculture becoming overlooked seems far-fetched. The necessity of the industry seems inherent. Farms and ranches literally form a patchwork quilt of earth and grass that covers the majority of the country. Agriculture equals food, fiber, feed and sometimes fuel. It's a heritage. It's life.

But times have changed.

At the turn of the last century, about 40 percent of the U.S. labor force were associated with farming or ranching. Then the country underwent an Industrial Revolution followed by a Green Revolution that saw the modernization of agriculture. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. work force plows a field or raises animals.

Reduced need for agricultural producers provided the opportunity for other pursuits. Steadily, with each passing generation, cities grew and rural life shrank. "This transition away from fundamental rural knowledge has caused a gulf' between producers and consumers," Buckner said. "Now the food that arrives on the dinner table is not linked to the endless stream of effort necessary to produce it."

These events served as a call to action.

Education has been a cornerstone of the Noble Research Institute since its inception. Lloyd Noble established his foundation in the post-Dust Bowl era to educate farmers and ranchers on methodologies for safeguarding the soil to prevent future calamity.

Through almost seven decades, the Noble Research Institute has continued to provide educational opportunities to agricultural producers through field days, workshops and seminars, as well as direct consultation.

The organization developed key internship programs both in science and agriculture to promote advancement in these fields and - through its philanthropic efforts - has provided more than $3 million to support agriculture and science youth educational programs and scholarships.

In the last decade, the growing lack of understanding has brought an increased focus on youth education. Special programs were developed - like the Noble Research Institute's Science in Ag Day, which focuses on how research and agriculture impact everyday life, and Ag Safety Day, which is part of a national effort to educate youth about safety on the farm - and adult-focused tours were modified to better engage youth participants.

Finally, in the fall of 2012, the Noble Research Institute centralized its outreach and educational activities toward delivering agriculture- and science-based education for all students, from elementary through college.

Noble Academy was born.

"Noble Academy's purpose is straightforward," Buckner said. "We want to demonstrate the importance of agriculture to society and the need for research to advance the industry, and communicate the wide range of career opportunities in agriculture and agriculture-related research to students."

Soon word spread that the Noble Research Institute was entering the agricultural education arena. "Having the Noble Research Institute deliver a focused educational effort is massively important to our region and the agricultural industry," Norvell said. "When the Noble Research Institute speaks, listen to what they say and take it to heart."

Now the only question became: Who should lead the effort?

F is for Frank
Frank Hardin, Ph.D., slips on his pressed white lab coat, pulls a pair of protective glasses into place and cocks a quick eyebrow as he scans his audience - 15 students, ranging from fifth to eighth grade, from Ardmore Christian School, whose eyes are locked on him.

He turns his attention to the experiment before him. "This next step is critical," says Hardin, 36. "You must take the strawberry slice, place it in the plastic bag and mash it up."

Hardin begins to demonstrate. Soon the strawberry is reduced to a gooey paste. Like miniature shadows, each of the students begins mashing away, teasing their neighbors as they learn.

Hardin effortlessly leads the students through a series of steps that ultimately lead to extracting the strawberry's DNA.

At the end of the experiment, the students are left with enriched DNA that they can scoop into a test tube and take home with them.

"This whole lesson is about DNA - the blueprint of life - what it is, where it comes from and what it does," Hardin said. "They've studied DNA, but they've never actually experienced it. That's the trick to teaching, providing students with hands-on experiences. That's the methodology behind Noble Academy - give students tangible learning moments at the intersection of agriculture and science."

Hardin's experience in education began on a path far afield from agriculture, a path infested with tsetse flies.

Originally from Marietta, Ga., Hardin earned three degrees (bachelor's, master's and doctoral) in cellular and molecular biology with an emphasis on biochemical parasitology from the University of Georgia.

During his graduate studies, he worked in the laboratory of Dr. Kojo Mensa-Wilmot, in the department of cellular biology. Hardin's project focused on studying Trypanosoma brucei, the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness, which is transmitted by the tsetse fly. In essence, the parasite enters the bloodstream, invades the central nervous system and, among other symptoms, disrupts the sleep-wake cycle. The pest can also infect livestock. "In many parts of Africa, livestock is everything. It's life," Hardin explained. The project hooked Hardin on research forever.

While in college, two other events transpired to reshape Hardin's life pursuit. First, he experienced his first taste of teaching. He earned a teaching assistantship and led classes in biology and human anatomy and physiology.

"When you have the opportunity to teach a student something new and it clicks, you can see that in their faces," Hardin said. "That's a phenomenal moment."

And there was more love to come.

In the fall of 2003, Hardin went to a friend's annual pumpkin carving party and met Maria Monteros, a young coed from Guatemala. He asked a mutual acquaintance about her and, unfortunately, she had a boyfriend. But Hardin would remember her.

Two years later, the couple met again and began dating. By 2007, the pair had married, and Monteros, a plant breeder and geneticist, had earned a position as a principal investigator at the Noble Research Institute. Hardin finished his doctoral studies at UGA two years later and headed west to the Oklahoma prairie to join his wife. While plants and tsetse flies are far apart in the animal kingdom, Hardin's experience effectively transferred to conducting research on improving switchgrass for biofuel production. After three years in the laboratory, the creation of Noble Academy allowed Hardin the opportunity to apply all of his skill sets - education and research.

"I get to have the best of both worlds," Hardin said. "I have the opportunity to be a scientist, which I love and have a passion for, and then I get to teach and possibly impact the next generation of scientists or producers. I couldn't ask for more."

Hardin's background affords him many advantages, mainly understanding and relating technical scientific aspects in usable, relatable terms. "As a scientist, I understand what's being done in the laboratory," he said. "As an educator, I work on engaging the students - no matter the age level - so they too can understand."

Hardin is joined by Cindy Crane, a research assistant turned educational outreach assistant, who has worked at the Noble Research Institute for more than a decade. This fall, the pair began building collaborations and curriculum to bring to schoolchildren in southern Oklahoma and beyond. "Educating youth about agriculture and science is my passion," Crane said. "We are already interacting with more than a thousand students per year, and what's great is this is just the beginning."

The next steps
Noble Academy is working with Oklahoma teachers and education-related associations to expand its efforts to provide key lessons to students through in-class demonstrations. Students can also visit the Noble Research Institute for on-campus events and tours.

In addition to its own programs and initiatives, Noble Academy will serve as an entryway for external partners seeking to further their own programs by connecting and collaborating with Noble Academy.

Dana Bessinger is the coordinator for Ag in the Classroom, a joint effort between the Oklahoma state departments of education, agriculture, food and forestry, and the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension to integrate agricultural literacy through core subjects from prekindergarten to eighth grade. Ag in the Classroom has been offering agricultural education in some form since 1980, and Bessinger understands the need for collaboration better than most.

"I can't begin to tell you the importance of collaboration," she said. "In the agricultural world, the stronger the collaboration, the more you achieve and the quicker you achieve it. It's the old adage that three cords tied together are not easily broken. Noble will play such an important role in this arena. You have so much to offer."

"Part of what I think is amazing is the brain power and knowledge at Noble. This can demonstrate the many career options that kids can have in agriculture. It is so vital to let them see there is a bigger world out there. You guys have the world at your doorstep, and you'll be able to funnel kids toward their futures."

And the future remains the focus. With global population expected to balloon from 7 billion to 9.5 billion, agricultural producers will need to produce 70 to 100 percent more food and do so with less land and water resources. An estimated 70 percent of these gains will come from efficiency improvements and technology which may not yet even exist, meaning research and young researchers will play a critical role in advancing agriculture. These circumstances will require equally profound commitments by researchers, producers and policy makers to provide sustainable solutions.

But Hardin is not worried. He believes all the necessary solutions to agriculture and the world's problems lie in the minds and imaginations of the next generation.

"When you start talking about agriculture with kids, something inside of them begins to stir," he said. "When you link what's happening in the world around them, when you show them the true scope of agriculture and its impact on their lives, there is a magical moment. It is a life-changing moment. That's what Noble Academy's about - making that moment happen."