A new initiative of the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication in Texas A&M University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will help students communicate and influence factual public discourse around agricultural science.
This work is supported by a $500,000 grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative‘s Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates program area within the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
With opportunities for experiences and mentorships with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and throughout the Texas A&M University System, the wide-reaching program aims to equip students with the skills for effective communications of science-based information across multimedia platforms including social media networks and via written and video blogs.
The new Science Influencers program operates in an era where information is delivered in soundbites and people turn to social media for news. The ability to broadly share fact-based science through modern media is of the utmost importance in this environment.
Holli Leggette, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Science Communications Lab; Gary Wingenbach, Ph.D., professor and senior scientist, Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture; and Barbara Gastel, M.D., professor, Texas A&M Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences, all in Bryan-College Station, designed the program.
“Since 2018 or so I’d been working with Dr. Gastel on this idea,” Leggette said. “She holds a joint appointment between the College of Medicine and the College of Veterinary Medicine and oversees the science and technology journalism master’s program here on campus. We started this project and then had to pause it for various reasons. Then, Dr. Wingenbach got involved and the program really shaped up.”
Leggette said the program puts communication curriculum into practice to help science students become better communicators within their area of interest. Recruitment for the Science Influencers program will officially launch in the fall with the first group of selected students taking a communications course taught by Leggette and Wingenbach in the spring.
The need for Science Influencers
The program is particularly focused on correcting misconceptions of rural America and misinterpretations of agricultural science by mass media outlets.
“A couple of years ago when we were developing this program, we were seeing mainstream media wholly misinterpret and miscommunicate food and agricultural crises in the media,” Wingenbach said. “It bothered us that the vast majority of Americans were getting their ‘science’ education and information from the media, and depending on the channel, it could be very skewed, not necessarily factual information.”
When people are removed from farms and agriculture, they can suffer from misperceptions about agricultural science and rural America, Wingenbach said.
“We in agriculture need to up our game, and it’s not to write more technical reports,” he said. “We need to use the tools used to communicate instantaneously; we need to take initiative to develop young people who are positive social media influencers. When much of America is getting their science information from tweets and chats, we realized the need to develop young scientists who use these tools to become really good at what they do, using social media to become a force in the national conversation about ‘what is food’ and ‘what is agriculture’. We need them to provide the factual side that’s missing from those conversations.”
The grant proposal states that the Science Influencers program is “driven by a need to repair the leaky pipeline in science communications.” It integrates research, education, and extension, or REE, experiences for undergraduates to become effective and influential communicators of science in the public domain.
“Students with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge and communications experience are needed in the food, agriculture, natural resources and human (FANH) sciences,” Leggette said. “Through the Science Influencers program, students will gain STEM knowledge and professional communications experience.”
The Science Influencers program
Thirty undergraduate students will participate in the program over a four-year period. Each participant will be part of a year-long program to increase the undergraduate’s applied knowledge and competencies to communicate effectively about STEM- and FANH-related issues.
The program will include bi-weekly meetings; research, education and extension, REE, experiences; activities with primary/collaborating mentors; science communications coursework; professional development workshops covering social media platforms, skills and analytics; and leadership skills development activities and immersive learning experiences, including paid internships and opportunities for research conferences or study abroad experiences. The Science Influencers program builds on current USDA projects and communications curricula.
“Undergraduates in STEM and FANH sciences will gain rigorous communication experiences and leadership skills so they can communicate accurately about STEM and FANH issues to help change a rural America image misperception,” Wingenbach said. “This project also helps the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) achieve its goal of supporting education and extension activities that deliver science-based knowledge to end users, allowing them to make informed, practical decisions. Furthermore, it addresses AFRI priorities: food safety, nutrition and health, and bioenergy, natural resources and environments.”
The size and scope of the Texas A&M University System will allow for cross-disciplinary mentors for the undergraduates.
“Between all the TAMUS campuses and the eight state agencies, our participants will have a wide selection of opportunities for mentorship and experiences, from being in a lab on a campus to being out in the field with an AgriLife Research scientist or AgriLife Extension specialist,” Wingenbach said.
Leggette said the number of her colleagues already expressing interest in serving as mentors has been phenomenal.
“We have people from across campus, AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension wanting to be mentors,” Wingenbach added.
Once selected, mentors and REE experiences will be profiled on the Science Influencers website being developed.
An REE advisory board will also be formed to serve as mentors, role models and advocates for undergraduates and contribute to programming and networking. The board will also support and guide those entering the FANH sciences workforce after graduation.
Science Influencers selection
Of the 30 participants, 50% will be from underrepresented minorities recruited and mentored from the 11 schools in the Texas A&M University System including Prairie View A&M University and Texas A&M-Kingsville. All targeted participants will be enrolled or have interests in STEM and FANH science-related programs.
Once the Science Influencers website is completed, prospective applicants will be able to apply online. All applicants will require references from two faculty members.
Participants who successfully complete the program will receive a Certificate of Science Communications.
This work is supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates program area, grant no. 2021-68018-34633/project accession no. 1026051.