Collaboration aims to shrink the urban-rural divide and address the impact of climate change through student research network

ST. LOUIS, MO, November 17, 2021 — Just as there often exists an urban-rural divide in political and environmental landscapes, urban and rural education systems share the common issue of being under-resourced, especially for science education. As climate change looms over rural agricultural communities, urban heat islands could serve as critical partners for anticipating the future of economically important crops. Kristine Callis Duehl, PhD, the Sally and Derick Driemeyer Director of Education Research and Outreach at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and her collaborators at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation and University of Illinois Extension were awarded a three year, $685,000 grant from United States Department of Agriculture to create a synergistic partnership between urban and rural communities in Southern IL to establish a cross-regional curriculum that introduces bioengineering and plant monitoring technology to middle school aged youth in summer programs. 

Young people at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation in East St. Louis, IL and at the Illinois Extension program in Waterloo, IL will monitor corn growth in both regions by using in-demand technology including drones and a microclimate field monitoring system developed by Danforth Center scientist Nadia Shakoor, PhD. By growing and comparing sweet corn, GMO commodity corn, and non-GMO commodity corn, students will see first-hand how bioengineering improves plant health and crop yield. By conducting joint fieldwork and presenting their ideas at a mini-conference, urban and rural youth will establish a collaboration that generates culturally mindful activities as well as authentic data that can help shed light on the impact of climate change on corn harvests. This collaboration will allow rural students to experience FarmBot robotics at work in smaller, urban plots and allow urban students to experience the use of drones used in precision agriculture on larger, rural farms. Ultimately, through this informal authentic research experience, participants will help develop a culturally informed curriculum that can be launched nationwide to establish a network of urban-rural authentic research hubs for non-formal summer programs.

“Young people participating in the project will gain an understanding of gene editing and hands-on experience using robotics to plant corn, as well as experience using drone and microclimate monitoring systems to assess corn growth and the microclimate,” said Callis-Duehl. "It will also provide technological training, and exposure to data analysis to prepare them for the future, as big data analysis has become increasingly critical in agricultural science.”

Youth will also gain leadership experience by providing feedback on curriculum so that it evolves and by teaching the youth the partner program how to use the agricultural technology unique to their research area (urban or rural).  

Co-Project Directors include Lisa Walsh, Danforth Plant Science Center, Mark Fryer, Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation and Amy Cope, University of Illinois Extension.

About the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education, and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter.