(L-R) GeoMARC Senior Scientist with Specialization in Remote Sensing Joshua Pritsolas and Director Randy Pearson, PhD, C-PAN Director Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, PhD, OSEO Specialist of Alternative Credentials and Grant Development Courtney Breckenridge, and ISU Assistant Professor of Crop Sciences Nicholas Heller, PhD.

EDWARDSVILLE - As the food and agricultural sector, like many industries, becomes progressively more reliant on data and digital technologies, the development of a highly-trained data-savvy workforce is critical. To meet that need, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has received $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to advance data training resources available in Illinois through statewide collaborations.

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The project, “Crossing the Digital Divide: Creating a Data-Savvy Workforce with Open Source Data Training Resources and Novel Industrial Credentialing Programs,” received one of 19 NIFA Agricultural Workforce Training grants totaling $9.44 million. Through collaborations with community workforce partners, industry stakeholders, and 2- and 4-year colleges, the project will support the training of a data-driven food and agricultural workforce across the State of Illinois and in the St. Louis Metro Area.

Multiple institutional and industry collaborators will help advance this initiative, including SIUE’s GeoMARC, SIUE’s Office of Online Services and Educational Outreach (OSEO), Illinois State University’s (ISU) Department of Agronomy, the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department Workforce Development Group, the Madison County Employment and Training Department, Heartland Community College, Lincoln Land Community College, and the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

“Through this multi-institutional and industry-wide partnership, we hope to reach the young and upcoming workforce, and provide them with the introductory resources necessary to pursue careers in the food and agriculture industry with a heavy data and technology component,” said principal investigator (PI) Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, PhD, director of the SIUE Center for Predictive Analytics (C-PAN).

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The project will remove common curricular barriers to creating a technology- and data-savvy workforce by:

  • Creating online and open-source training materials which may be viewed independently or incorporated into current courses at technical colleges
  • Developing regional face-to-face training workshops which cover the data access, analysis and decision-making concepts integral to the food and agriculture industry
  • Piloting two new industry-aligned credentialing programs in data science and geospatial information systems (GIS)

“To reach a broad workforce, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work,” noted Butts-Wilmsmeyer. “We want to reach high school students who might have an interest in data-savvy or highly technical fields, current workforce employees who want additional training in these new technologies, community college instructors who want to learn more about the technologies before applying them in the classroom, and farmers who want to understand and use the data that their equipment is generating. As these are completely different audiences, we want to develop tailored training resources for each of them.”

The project personnel were quick to highlight the importance of statewide collaboration and teamwork, and to commend the project’s partners. Personnel from C-PAN, GeoMARC and ISU will be responsible for creating training resources to be used in workshops, classrooms and digital badging programs, in addition to hosting workshops, teaching courses in support of the digital badging program, and mentoring participants. Involved community colleges will help identify needed resources, pilot those resources, and provide feedback on what is most helpful to students.

The OSEO will coordinate the new digital badging program while working with industry partners to ensure that courses are reflective of current and foreseeable workforce training needs. Workforce partners will also assist in coordinating efforts to provide this curriculum to high school students throughout the region while promoting and recruiting a diverse workforce population.

“All of us PIs either came from rural America or have strong ties to the agricultural community,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer added. “We are where we are today largely because of the support of that community. This gives us a chance to give back and to provide those in multiple walks of life with easy access to training in cutting-edge, highly marketable skillsets in data science and remote sensing.”

This work is supported by grant number 2021-67037-34171.

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