The National Science Foundation has awarded a $3 million grant to an interdisciplinary team of Penn State researchers to create a new graduate program that will train students to find solutions to real-world problems facing Food-Energy-Water (FEW) systems.
The project, “Landscape-U, Impactful partnerships among graduate students and managers for regenerative landscape design,” focuses on societal issues around food, energy and water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and globally.
Students will receive the interdisciplinary training necessary to address complex, landscape-scale challenges, and in a new model of university-society partnership, will work closely with stakeholders to co-create solutions to those issues, the researchers said.
“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to reinvent graduate education in a way that’s relevant to the challenges of the 21st century,” said Erica Smithwick, professor of geography and director of the Ecology Institute and Center for Landscape Dynamics at Penn State.
“We live in a society where challenges of food, energy and water are all connected,” said Smithwick, who is principle investigator on the project. “The problem can’t be addressed by one discipline alone. We will allow graduate students to engage and work with stakeholders, guided by faculty experience, to solve some of these problems.”
The project will link faculty and students at multiple Penn State colleges, centers and existing interdisciplinary graduate programs, providing unique training opportunities for students and a hub for FEW-related research.
Co-principle investigators are Klaus Keller, professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; Jason Kaye, professor of soil biogeochemistry, and Leland Glenna, associate professor of rural sociology, both in the College of Agricultural Sciences; and Alan Graefe, professor in the College of Health and Human Development.
Kaye also serves as chair of the intercollege graduate degree program in Ecology, Glenna serves as co-chair of the International Agriculture and Development graduate program, and Alan Graefe serves as chair of the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment graduate program.
Douglas Bird, associate professor of anthropology; Jeffrey Brownson, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering; Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Andrew Cole, associate professor of landscape architecture, are all senior personnel.
In addition to providing interdisciplinary training, the project will leverage partnerships with federal and state agencies to provide real-world experiences for graduate students.
“The projects students engage with would be driven by stakeholders,” said Smithwick. who also is an associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. “The stakeholders would be involved in courses with graduate students to present key problem areas that an agency would be interested in. The students will have to do some problem solving in the course, and eventually conduct research.”
Students will study FEW issues throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond — like how energy production impacts the forests, such as in the Allegheny plateau; how geology governs food production in agricultural valleys; and how lessons from past human societies can inform sustainable aquaculture.
“If you think of land use transects through the state, we have issues that cut across the food, energy, water nexus,” Smithwick said. “We have challenges where these sectors are linked.”
The Penn State project is one of 17 supported by new NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) awards, and one of only seven focused on the FEW nexus, aimed at training the next generation of scientific leaders to develop the skills necessary to tackle complex societal problems.
“Innovative approaches are vital to transforming STEM graduate education,” said Jim Lewis, acting assistant director for NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate. “By supporting approaches that utilize evidence-based learning practices, immersing students in interdisciplinary research and providing students with opportunities to develop career-aligned skillsets, NRT projects are helping change the landscape of graduate education and better prepare future STEM scientists for diverse careers.”
Landscape-U will provide funding for 34 doctoral trainees and support the participation of up to 60 doctoral students.
Researchers said the project’s name pays homage to Penn State’s rich history as a land-grant university, while also expressing that a 21st-century land-grant mission must address the intersection between food, energy and water at landscape scales.
“We really are trying to reinvent the 21st-century land-grant mission,” Smithwick said. “We will engage with stakeholders through transdisciplinary science and work with them to help define and solve the problem, even as that solution space is shifting.
“We as faculty are just learning to do this,” she added. “We want students to learn how to engage early and often in their career. We want these students to be trained in the real world so their range of job opportunities are much broader.”