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TSU receives grant to provide ag training in underserved communitiesTSU receives grant to provide ag training in underserved communities

Grant from USDA reflects a new sense of urgency for quality online courses.

Forrest Laws

May 25, 2021

John Ricketts admits that the title of the grant – “Rapid Rollout of 8 National Standards-based Rigorous and Remote AFNR Courses for Underserved College-bound Students – is “quite a mouthful.”

But those words also sum up the essence of the $1-million project that Ricketts, professor of agricultural leadership, education and communications at Tennessee State University, is putting together to help more young people begin careers in agriculture.

“As you guys know, Tennessee State University is an 1890 Land Grant,” said Ricketts, speaking at an online meeting of the Memphis Agricultural Club. “A lot of folks don’t know we have an agriculture program at TSU, including our students, but we’re doing everything we can to let them know and point them to the world of work in agriculture.”

The grant Ricketts received from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture or NIFA reflects a new sense of urgency in academia resulting from the need for quality online courses not only for agriculture but other disciplines because of the Covid-19 Pandemic.

One of his first encounters with online or distance learning occurred while he was on the faculty of the University of Georgia. Jean Bertrand at UGA developed a project funded by USDA aimed at helping faculty members become adept at teaching online.

“When I came to TSU I tried to do a lot of that, but it didn’t really take or nobody really bit until the pandemic,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, we all had to teach online. So now the motivation levels are high, and we have a lot of professional development going on.”

Ricketts, who grew up on a 300-acre beef farm near Nashville, Tenn., earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Middle Tennessee State University and his doctorate at the University of Florida. He first began working with students in underserved communities when he was at Georgia.

“I thought I was going to be at Georgia forever,” he said. “I’m one of the few people you’ll ever meet who have gone through the tenure process twice. I was tenured at UGA, but I got homesick and found a job in Nashville (at TSU) 20 minutes from the family farm. The job was non-tenure track back in the day, but I missed my cows so I did it for the beef.”

Besides earning tenure again, Ricketts worked with other TSU faculty members to develop a graduate ag and Extension program at the university in Nashville. While Tennessee State is in an urban setting, its students are finding jobs in the agriculture, food and natural resources or ANFR area.

Rolling Extension Service

Later, Ricketts and John Ball, who is now located at Farm Credit Florida, worked on a grant to provide distance education “the old school way. Some of you may have heard of the Rolling Extension Service once upon a time. We have a mobile education rig. The tornado has grounded it temporarily, but it will be back online soon.

“If you type in rolling palace – that was Dr. Ball’s doing, not mine – you will find quite a bit of curriculum. Now if we do a project with food safety or we do a project with biotech or the microbiology faculty – if we develop an outreach piece, we drop it in this website.”

In 2019, TSU received a project to develop advanced capacity in online learning, virtual reality and 360 Video.

“A lot of the work in VR hasn’t really taken off yet,” he said. “360 Video is starting to get some headway. Everybody, including business and industry, is starting to get into that a little bit. The idea there is we have students at TSU who don’t really come from a farm or have stepped on many farms.

“But they’re getting these great jobs without the background or the context they need. What we’re trying to do is capture ag experiences with this 360 Video format. You don’t have to have the goggles, but if you do you you put on these virtual reality headsets, and your phone slides into it. They can get pretty fancy with you feeling like you are on the tractor or in the processing plant or the dairy parlor. That’s an exciting piece that will feed a lot of these other projects you will hear about today.”


About the Author(s)

Forrest Laws

Forrest Laws, senior director of content for Farm Press, spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He now oversees the content creation for Delta, Southeast, Southwest and Western Farm Press. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.

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