MSU Global Scholars take agricultural education worldwide
Developing, teaching short courses to global audience of learners
The newest members of Michigan State University’s Global Scholars Program helped to deliver valuable agricultural lessons worldwide during the summer of 2021.
With the help of MSU IT, Global Scholars Dan Chitwood, Ramjee Ghimire, Cedric Gondro, Brent Ross and Cholani Weebadde developed online courses for professionals and students from countries around the world using virtual teaching tools like D2L.
The theme of global agricultural education was made even more relevant by the COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID-19 has caused many obstacles for international research, education and outreach programs, it’s also provided an opportunity for MSU to creatively address how agricultural information can be shared virtually.
“The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) has a rich tradition of international agricultural education,” said interim CANR Dean Kelly Millenbah. “This year’s cohort of Global Scholars are exploring new higher education models for the global community.”
The Global Scholars Program is a unit within CANR International Programs. Each scholar developed courses designed to globally expand agricultural higher education using modern communication tools and technologies:
- Chitwood developed a graduate online course on “Foundations in Computational and Plant Sciences” for MSU students in Mexico, and other countries.
- Ghimire taught a one-week online international short course “Zoonotic Diseases,” targeting a diverse group of stakeholders internationally.
- Gondro developed a special online course for graduate and senior undergraduate students at MSU and internationally on “Precision Livestock Production: Big Data Programming and Artificial Intelligence Methods Applied to Animal Production.”
- Ross produced a 12-week agribusiness certificate program focusing on “Global Food Systems Innovations and Entrepreneurship.”
- Weebadde taught a 14-week online course “Plant Breeding 2 Fight Hunger” for plant breeding professionals nationally and internationally.
“The pandemic forced a lot of our faculty to adjust their courses from in-person to online,” said Karim Maredia, director of CANR International Programs and Senior Global Scholar. “We took that a step further and asked if we could take those online courses and make them global. This allows us to take MSU’s expertise to a wider audience, build our knowledge networks and could potentially lead to new research opportunities.”
Cholani Weebadde Plant Breeding 2 Fight Hunger course
Weebadde has served as MSU’s Plant Breeder for International Programs since 2015. In this role and for a decade prior to that, she has traveled extensively and witnessed firsthand the gaps in plant breeding knowledge, technology adoption and technique adaptation from country to country.
“Since 2005, I’ve been traveling the world quite a bit, and I often wondered why people were so worried about GMOs, and why they didn’t see the benefits of genetic engineering as a tool to improve agriculture,” Weebadde said. “As I tried to understand why, I realized that many plant breeders, especially in the developing world, are still working with classical plant breeding methods mainly because they were trained before genetic engineering and molecular tools became available to improve crops.”
The knowledge gap she observed inspired her to design courses on novel plant breeding methods taught at MSU for plant breeders worldwide, with the hope of uplifting the general knowledge base.
Weebadde had experience developing and teaching semester-long and short courses at MSU prior to the pandemic and successfully implemented online courses as students transitioned to remote learning during the fall 2020. That success led to a belief that the course could serve a wider global audience.
“I thought this would be a perfect vehicle to take the course to our colleagues around the world,” she said. “I realized the time was now for this opportunity, as everyone was getting on board with the benefits of novel plant breeding techniques and with online teaching and learning.”
The course received positive feedback from the plant breeders. The course had 102 participants from 21 countries with participants from CGIAR centers (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), India’s National Agriculture Research System, private plant breeding companies and universities. Almost half of the participants were sponsored by the Plant Breeding and Biotechnology Program at Ghent University in Belgium. Ghent has contacted Weebadde to consider a more extensive collaboration with MSU.
Among the benefits of the online course was its ability to bring together breeders from around the world, allowing students and professionals to broaden their collaborative communities and learn about handling various challenges.
“I learned that as a plant breeder, you have to collaborate with other breeders to achieve your objectives, because the breeding process can be a very daunting and overwhelming task,” said Stephen Attah, a recent graduate of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement in Ghana. “Collaboration helps make the process much easier and fun. It brings about the sharing of ideas, experience, expertise and knowledge.”
Sarah White, a strawberry breeder for Driscoll’s in California, said Weebadde’s course was enlightening and beneficial to her work.
“One of the biggest lessons I took from this class was the importance of outlining the breeding objectives for your specific program. This is paramount in order to make breeding gains in areas that are important to the specific industry you are breeding for,” said White, who did her undergraduate work at California Polytechnic State University.
“Another lesson I took from this course was the growing importance of resistance breeding for abiotic stress. With climate change having a significant impact on how and where we can produce crops sustainably for our ever-growing population, there is a critical need for breeding strategies for abiotic stress tolerance.”
For Weebadde, the online format gave her more time for feedback and training than previous in-country visits.
“I remember traveling with Karim (Maredia) prior to the pandemic, and it was often really hard to focus as much on detailed lessons, because you spend so much time traveling and then you interact with smaller groups of people, who are often limited by location themselves,” Weebadde said. “With online asynchronous courses, you can reach out to anybody around the world and you can give the exact amount of time you would otherwise give to your students on campus at MSU.”
Weebadde credits MSU IT for providing the online framework and troubleshooting that allowed her to connect worldwide. While anxious about potential issues, Weebadde said the course ran more smoothly than expected, and that inspired a desire to hopefully expand online learning options in the future.
“My vision, my big dream, is to one day have an online collaborating master's program at MSU,” she said. “A lot of people around the world find plant breeding opportunities in the private sector right after they get their undergraduate degree. Often these plant breeders don’t have the time or resources to obtain a plant breeding master's degree, especially from a place like MSU, which teaches the most advanced coursework and the most recent technologies.
“My goal would be to find a way to build online courses for some of the high-level advanced topics we teach at MSU. Ideally, you could have students working in their home countries on relevant crops that impact their own economies and still have the opportunity to have an amazing degree from a place like MSU.”
To continue the collaboration established during the online course, Weebadde has launched a digital platform called Plant Breeders Network. The network allows professionals around the world to connect and “strengthen knowledge networks across crops, traits and locations.”
Ramjee Ghimire zoonotic diseases course
MSU Department of Animal Science researcher Ramjee Ghimire specializes in multidisciplinary research, training and outreach focusing on food safety, animal health, community empowerment and sustainable agricultural development in Asia, Africa, and the U.S. His expertise in zoonotic diseases, coupled with the surge of COVID-19 cases, inspired him to develop a one-week short course on zoonotic diseases.
“When COVID-19 hit, it really put zoonotic diseases in the forefront,” Ghimire said. “Sixty percent of human diseases are of animal origin and after COVID-19 hit, we realized there was a major knowledge gap on this subject. At the end of the day, we were very happy to see that our participants appreciated the course, the speakers and the panelists.”
The International Short Course on Zoonotic Diseases was designed for a global audience of professionals in public health, veterinary medicine, higher education, researchers, livestock and food industry managers, as well as community leaders. The goal is to provide the information and skills necessary to develop science-based, applied zoonotic disease management plans.
The course included MSU’s Department of Animal Science and the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Human Medicine and Osteopathic Medicine along with the World Technology Access Program (WorldTAP). Together, they developed educational material and lessons designed to provide a deeper understanding of zoonotic diseases and how to prevent, control and contain outbreaks.
Speakers from MSU, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, European and Asian universities discussed various topics such as epidemiology and the control and prevention of zoonotic diseases; the roles of global health organizations; public health approaches to addressing zoonotic diseases; and COVID-19.
“Completing this course was very rewarding and the entire team was very happy to see that our participants appreciated the course,” Ghimire said. “For me, this was one my proudest moments at MSU. It was a great learning experience.”