NCDC231: Collaborative for Research on Food, Energy, and Water Education

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

NCDC231: Collaborative for Research on Food, Energy, and Water Education

Duration: 09/28/2016 to 09/30/2018

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

There exists a clear and present need to innovate educational efforts focused on food, agriculture, natural resources, and human (FANH) sciences education.  Efforts to recruit and prepare highly-skilled members of FANH workforce continue to fall short of the needs of industry[1].  Additionally, there is evidence of significant limitations in what individuals know about FANH science-based issues, their underlying scientific dimensions, abilities to critically analyze and reason about them, or how these issues impact their lives[2]. These challenges provide a rationale for sustained, systemic, and interdisciplinary education and outreach efforts focused on food, energy, and water (FEW) issues in a wide array of contexts, including K-12 classrooms, university settings, informal and non-formal learning environments, and in public spaces.  The emergence of the Food-Energy-Water Nexus[3] presents a unique opportunity not only to re-envision these programmatic efforts, but also to engage in fundamental education research.  This research is critical to better understand how to optimally support youth and adults to become informed, scientifically-literate consumers, producers, voters, and policymakers regarding FEW issues that span the FANH sciences.  Our working hypothesis, and underlying assumption of this NDCD committee proposal, is that the FEW-Nexus affords a novel theoretical and analytical lens through which to both foster and understand science literacy from ‘cradle to grave’.

What is science literacy? The National Research Council defines science literacy as “knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity” (p. 192)[4]. A common interpretation of science literacy is that learners will naturally employ their knowledge of science to analyze and make effective decisions about challenging FEW issues. Conversations about science literacy often revolve around defining what and how much science everyone should know.  Yet, empirical research shows that this perspective is over-simplistic in its assumptions about the nature of knowledge and learning. To truly foster science literacy, it is necessary to go beyond simply helping individuals learn a pre- determined body of knowledge. The FEW challenges of today demand competencies with integrative problem-solving and decision-making grounded in the ability to account for and balance trade-offs and synergies within and across systems.  These processes will be critical to address the increasing challenge of feeding a growing human population sustainably with a finite supply of natural resources. As such, all learners must be actively supported to learn to leverage scientific knowledge and negotiate its intersection with social, cultural, and economic values to make science informed decisions about FEW issues. 

However, little research has been conducted to understand how individuals develop science literacy through systems thinking.  The FEW Nexus serves as a conceptual framework used to describe and aid in addressing the complex interrelationships associated with coupled human-natural systems at local, regional, and global scales.  The interdependence and inter-linkages between water, energy, and food means that changes in one system can have far-reaching impacts in other systems, resulting in significant ecological, economic, social, and political consequences. The nexus serves as an analytical tool to understand the interplay between natural systems and their human dimensions.  While each of these represents a coherent system and unit of analysis in its own right, envisioning their interconnections as a ‘nexus’ aids in decision-making that span particular objectives, production and consumption pathways, and regulatory modes.  In short, the nexus idea affords greater ability to represent systems as holistic entities that go beyond a simple sum of their constituent parts.  To advance knowledge in this space, we propose the following overarching research questions for the new NCDC committee:

    1. How do learners develop decision-making competencies through systems thinking in the FEW Nexus?

    2. What programmatic elements of FEW Nexus-based education and outreach efforts are most effective in supporting learners’ developing decision-making competencies?

    3. How do empirical findings help elaborate the FEW Nexus as a theory of learning about natural systems and their human dimensions?

Reaching tomorrow’s FEW decision-makers in a systemic way involves innovating programming on many fronts.  All youth and adults must be prepared to examine complex FANH science-based FEW issues and make socially-responsible decisions, as well as be informed and empowered to influence contemporary conversations and challenges associated with FANH. To do so, they must develop core understanding of FANH sciences, non-scientific dimensions of FEW issues, and abilities to engage I principled and purposeful analysis and decision-making about them.  This knowledge base and skillset - science literacy - is crucial to maintain America’s global competitiveness and democratic foundations.  Land Grant institutions must take a leading role in fostering science literacy as a means of preparing all global citizens for the FEW challenges of today and tomorrow, including bolstering the national FANH sciences workforce.  However, few systematic education research efforts exist designed to study science literacy about FEW issues, or the interrelatedness between agriculture and natural resources stewardship.  Doing so will require interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations, which can be greatly facilitated by forming a new NCDC committee.  The 12-state North Central Region has many educators and scientists with expertise that can contribute to systemic education research efforts grounded in the Food-Energy-Water Nexus. As one of the most productive agricultural regions of the world, it is also home to many contemporary issues that span food, energy, and water, such as water resource management, adaptation to increasing climate variability, and sustainable energy production and consumption, each of which reflect the region’s unique “silos and smokestacks” history and heritage. 

These challenges at the center of the FEW-Nexus have significant implications for food, energy, and water education research in the North Central Region.  Efforts to foster science literacy through education and outreach must transcend the activities of individual teams to achieve collective, systemic impact and change.  Because of the wide diversity of FEW issues evidence in the North Central Region, from the High Plains to the Great Lakes and encompassing the entire upper Mississippi Basin, we are uniquely positioned to develop education and outreach programs and conduct empirical studies unified by core models, strategies, and commitments but implemented in diverse ways reflecting unique elements of localized FEW-Nexus issues.  Furthermore, the new NCDC would afford collaboration and coordination necessary to develop, implement, and study programming that spans institutions and states in North Central Region.  Ultimately, FEW issues in the North Central Region are connected to national and global FEW systems.  Thus, this new multistate effort has the strong potential to contribute to FEW education efforts that extend beyond the North Central Region, thus providing a nucleus for a growing network of educators and scientists committed to fostering and studying science literacy within the FEW Nexus.    

Cultivating and studying science literacy systemically at a regional level requires working together beyond individual teams and institutions in diverse ways that reflect the fundamental transdisciplinarity of the FEW Nexus.  The multistate and multidisciplinary approach provides an exceptional opportunity to develop collaborative projects in the North Central Region that will allow us to develop and implement comprehensive research programs directed specifically at producing empirical findings on science literacy around regional issues, delineating baseline data to be used as benchmarks over time to ascertain the effectiveness of new education and outreach programs, develop innovative tools to aid in regional responsiveness to emergent FEW issues, and to cultivate a network that could ultimately expand nationally and internationally to address FEW issues worldwide through effective, research-based educational methods and interventions.  Furthermore, such collaborative transdisciplinary and multi-institutional projects will greatly enhance the North Central Region stakeholder’s position to compete successfully for federal funding on FEW education, research, and outreach issues.

[1] Goecker, A. D., Smith, P. G., Smith, E., & Goetz, R. (2010). Employment opportunities for college graduates in food, renewable energy, and the environment: United States, 2010-2015. Purdue University.

[2] National Research Council. (2009). Transforming agricultural education for a changing world. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

[3] FAO. (2014). The water-energy-food nexus: A new approach in support of food security and sustainable agriculture. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[4] National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.



Procedures and Activities

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan


Literature Cited


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

University of Puerto Rico: Other
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