A pile of jelly beans sits on the table, beckoning with a rainbow of colors. A child looks intently at each bean, checking if there are any giveaways as to the flavor. But the beans are indistinguishable, so the child reaches down and delicately picks one up. A second later, the child makes a face of disgust. This was no normal bean. It tasted like spoiled milk.

Unbeknownst to the child, the exercise is teaching the food science behind these “every flavor” beans, such as how these flavors are created inside that sugary capsule. This child is a participant in a larger project where, in addition to jelly beans, students will learn the chemistry and physics of gummy bears, DNA extraction, embryology, sensory evaluation, and more.

With a four-year, $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, created a professional development program model. It will support teachers from schools serving predominantly minority-identifying students and seeks to engage youth in pathways for STEM fields within the food, agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences. Eight faculty members from across the college are participating in the program.

Food science is just one of many scientific ventures children will learn through the Engaging Secondary Teachers in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Research for Agricultural Literacy program. Other focus areas of the program are plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition, and health; bioenergy; and agriculture systems and technology.

Twenty secondary teachers will take part each year from schools associated with the College Access Collaborative program, for a total of 80 over the duration of the grant. Interested teacher participants will have program sessions that best align with their content areas. The college’s faculty will engage teachers from five initial schools as examples of the range of areas included in the program.

The mission of the College Access Collaborative is to increase academic preparation, access, and affordability for first-generation, low-income, underrepresented minorities, women, and students from rural and inner-city communities.

“It’s important that the students learn how all of this is relevant to addressing food, energy, and water needs that we have in today’s society,” said Donna Westfall-Rudd, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist. “We want to help them make the connections between the technical aspects they learn in class and the overall opportunity of careers and problem solving to meet world issues.”

The program will facilitate new partnerships between college researchers and secondary teachers in communities across the state, will implement research initiatives in the secondary education curriculum, and will provide recommendations to the Virginia State Department of Education staff regarding the necessary support and continuing education services needed to assist secondary teachers.

“Our long-term goal for the program is to show the youth of the immense career possibilities in agriculture and the life sciences and for them to understand the role that these sciences play in our everyday lives,” said Westfall-Rudd.

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