Faculty learning community to bring international ag to classroom via technology

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Imagine being on a rubber plantation in Malaysia, just a few feet away from a farmer as he prunes low-hanging branches on a rubber tree, or watching a food scientist at a cacao bean cooperative in Honduras as she demonstrates how cacao beans become chocolate.    

For students in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, global lessons such as these are within reach, and not just through study-abroad opportunities. Thanks to technology, students can explore faraway places and see agriculture in action without leaving a classroom.

"Students who acquire knowledge and skills related to international agricultural practices and challenges are better positioned to tackle global problems such as food insecurity, gender inequality and poverty," said Melanie Miller-Foster, assistant teaching professor of international agriculture in the college's Office of International Programs.

"Our goal is to bring different corners of the world to University Park and provide all of our students with immersive, meaningful lessons in international agriculture," she said.

To that end, Miller-Foster and her colleague, Noel Habashy, instructor and adviser for the international agriculture minor, are spearheading a new "faculty learning community" — called Global Learning in Agriculture — comprised of faculty members who are interested in advancing global knowledge through new methodologies and technologies.

"Technology can break geographical, seasonal and language barriers," said Habashy, who recently used 360-degree video technology to transport — by way of the virtual highway — his Introduction to International Agriculture students to Costa Rica, where they observed Melvin, a smallholder coffee farmer, as he tended to his crops.

"We're eager to brainstorm with other faculty to see how we can enhance student learning by using technology new and old, from 360-degree video all the way to sticky notes and markers."

The Global Learning in Agriculture group is one of several that have received support from a new Penn State professional development program called "Teaching and Learning with Technology Faculty Learning Communities."

The initiative, supported by Penn State's Teaching and Learning with Technology program, brings together tenure-track and teaching faculty who want to explore a shared interest in an area that deals with teaching and learning and the use of technology at any Penn State campus, explained Stephanie Edel-Malizia, instructor designer for the program.

Faculty were invited to propose any idea related to teaching and learning with technology, with a particular emphasis on projects related to learning spaces, scholarship of teaching and learning, faculty professional development, data science, immersive experiences, and open educational resources. The Global Learning in Agriculture submission was among those selected to receive grant funding to help with implementation.

"We envision many benefits for faculty as part of the faculty learning communities, and each will have the ability to share out their findings from their work over the academic year," Edel-Malizia said. "Therefore, the benefits may also impact a larger group of faculty."

Miller-Foster and Habashy are inviting faculty who are interested in promoting student learning of global agriculture in their classes to join them at a kickoff luncheon set for noon on Sept. 14, at a location to be determined based on response. The group will meet on a regular basis to share ideas and create reusable learning objects to advance the teaching of global agriculture topics.

Those who want to attend should contact Miller-Foster at mjm727@psu.edu or 814-867-3831, or Habashy at noel@psu.edu or 814-865-8309, by Sept. 11.

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Last Updated September 06, 2018