EDWARDSVILLE, ILL. – As the food and agricultural sector, like many industries, becomes progressively more reliant on data and digital technologies, the development of a highly-trained data-savvy workforce is critical. To meet that need, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has received $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to advance data training resources available in Illinois through statewide collaborations.
The project, “Crossing the Digital Divide: Creating a Data-Savvy Workforce with Open Source Data Training Resources and Novel Industrial Credentialing Programs,” received one of 19 NIFA Agricultural Workforce Training grants totaling $9.44 million. Through collaborations with community workforce partners, industry stakeholders, and 2- and 4-year colleges, the project will support the training of a data-driven food and agricultural workforce across the State of Illinois and in the St. Louis Metro Area.
Multiple institutional and industry collaborators will help advance this initiative, including SIUE’s GeoMARC, SIUE’s Office of Online Services and Educational Outreach (OSEO), Illinois State University’s (ISU) Department of Agronomy, the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department Workforce Development Group, the Madison County Employment and Training Department, Heartland Community College, Lincoln Land Community College, and the Illinois Corn Growers Association.
“Through this multi-institutional and industry-wide partnership, we hope to reach the young and upcoming workforce, and provide them with the introductory resources necessary to pursue careers in the food and agriculture industry with a heavy data and technology component,” said principal investigator (PI) Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, PhD, director of the SIUE Center for Predictive Analytics (C-PAN).
The project will remove common curricular barriers to creating a technology- and data-savvy workforce by:
“To reach a broad workforce, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work,” noted Butts-Wilmsmeyer. “We want to reach high school students who might have an interest in data-savvy or highly technical fields, current workforce employees who want additional training in these new technologies, community college instructors who want to learn more about the technologies before applying them in the classroom, and farmers who want to understand and use the data that their equipment is generating. As these are completely different audiences, we want to develop tailored training resources for each of them.”
The project personnel were quick to highlight the importance of statewide collaboration and teamwork, and to commend the project’s partners. Personnel from C-PAN, GeoMARC and ISU will be responsible for creating training resources to be used in workshops, classrooms and digital badging programs, in addition to hosting workshops, teaching courses in support of the digital badging program, and mentoring participants. Involved community colleges will help identify needed resources, pilot those resources, and provide feedback on what is most helpful to students.
The OSEO will coordinate the new digital badging program while working with industry partners to ensure that courses are reflective of current and foreseeable workforce training needs. Workforce partners will also assist in coordinating efforts to provide this curriculum to high school students throughout the region while promoting and recruiting a diverse workforce population.
“All of us PIs either came from rural America or have strong ties to the agricultural community,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer added. “We are where we are today largely because of the support of that community. This gives us a chance to give back and to provide those in multiple walks of life with easy access to training in cutting-edge, highly marketable skillsets in data science and remote sensing.”
C-PAN and GeoMARC are housed within SIUE’s Graduate School. By preparing the next generation of leaders in a knowledge-based economy, SIUE’s Graduate School fulfills the region’s demand for highly trained professionals. Graduate program offerings include arts and sciences, business, education, engineering, nursing and interdisciplinary opportunities. SIUE professors provide students with a unique integration of theoretical education and hands-on research experiences. Students can obtain graduate certificates or pursue master’s degrees, and be part of a supportive learning and rich intellectual environment that is tailored to the needs of adult learners. The Graduate School’s Office of Research and Projects supports and raises the visibility of research and creative activity at SIUE, which ranks highest among its Illinois Board of Higher Education peers in total research and development expenditures according to the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey.
This work is supported by grant number 2021-67037-34171.