Teaching how to communicate ag hot topics more effectively

USDA grant funds effort to teach university students how to increase awareness and knowledge about controversial topics in agriculture.

Major issues threaten American agriculture, but few outside the industry understand the gravity of these problems. University of Florida students are learning how to tell these stories.

The National Institute of Food & Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded a $296,000 grant to the University of Florida, Texas Tech University and Colorado State University to teach students how to increase their awareness and knowledge about controversial topics in agriculture and natural resources. That way, they can think more critically about such hot-button topics — including genetically modified organisms and climate change — and, thus, communicate more effectively about them, said Ricky Telg, a University of Florida professor of agricultural education and communication.

The grant will help future agriculture leaders know how to communicate more effectively and hopefully educate the general public about how these challenges could, for example, destroy Florida’s $10.7 billion citrus industry, spread viruses like chikungunya and dengue, increase water pollution and lead to greater rates of obesity. Educating the general public about these challenges will help people understand how agricultural and natural resource issues are intertwined.

“We hope this grant will provide information to the students that will help them understand that any one particular issue is comprised of many, many other aspects,” said Telg, who’s also director of the university's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Center for Public Issues Education in Agriculture & Natural Resources. “These topics were selected because they are representative of other issues that arise, such as the impact of an invasive species as it relates to citrus greening and on manmade and natural disasters as related to the Apalachicola Bay region.”

Telg and his colleagues, assistant professor Alexa Lamm and lecturer Becky Raulerson — all faculty members in the IFAS agricultural education and communication department — are shooting videos, collecting information and writing curricula about these issues. These case studies will be integrated into Raulerson’s "Issues in Agricultural & Life Sciences" course and two other issues-based courses at Texas Tech and Colorado State this fall, Telg said. Students will be asked about the issues as they watch the videos.

“They will be challenged to find out more about the topics outside of class and to critically think about these and other topics,” Telg said. “With citrus greening, for example, there are many interrelated issues, ranging from how the disease got into Florida to its economic and societal impacts to the amount of resources (IFAS) and other research organizations are devoting to this. It’s a huge issue, and it’s one that many people who are not directly involved in agriculture really don’t understand.

“I hope this initial effort will serve as a template for developing future educational materials to inform the public about these interconnected issues facing agriculture,” Telg added.

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