Balunkeswar (Balu) Nayak wants to help change the way food science students are educated.
Nayak, an associate professor of food processing at the University of Maine, and the rest of his team were recently awarded a USDA Grant to help re-imagine the way university students pursuing degrees in food science learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, thanks in large part to an idea he developed through IFT.
The initiative began when Nayak was a member of the IFT Emerging Leaders Network (ELN), a highly selective global leadership program established for new professionals in the science of food who are eager to expand their leadership skills. The program is designed to bridge the gap between the participant’s academic experience and their on-the-job training.
While participating in the program in 2016, Nayak said he learned a great deal from one of his ELN mentors: Helen Joyner, a professor at the University of Idaho (and a past ELN participant herself).
"During that two and a half days of intensive training, Helen was very helpful in terms of understanding how we need to approach our research and our teaching and how we can implement our research into leadership training to guide our students,” Nayak says.
After the formal ELN program concluded, Nayak continued to regularly connect with Joyner and his fellow ELN participants through the program’s virtual small group meetings. “It was excellent,” says Nayak, “and in the months that followed, we pretty much discussed everything: from what projects we were working on, to helpful techniques and tactics. And at one point, I was thinking about how we had discussed a lot about our leadership practice and training, and it occurred to me, ‘Why don’t we apply this on a wider level?’ So, with Helen and few other colleagues’ support, we proposed this grant.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture–National Institute of Food and Agriculture Higher Education Challenge Program awarded Nayak and the rest of his team a grant worth nearly $750,000. With the money, they plan to develop an evidence-based, student-centered, and interactive program that will use inter-university collaboration to provide food science majors with effective learning methods in food processing and engineering courses they’ll need to develop innovative ideas and solutions for the future of food.
“This is an extremely important grant for improving the teaching of undergraduate students in food science to help them join the work force,” says Nayak. “Rather than to focus on the classic chalk and blackboard-type course, we are trying to use some student-centered active learning techniques. We want to focus on student engagement in the class, like group projects that aren’t focused on any single university or location.”
Nayak and his co-directors will develop a learning model that incorporates group discussions and teamwork among students at six different land grant universities (University of Maine, University of Idaho, Washington State University, Iowa State University, University of Kentucky and Virginia Tech.) Students at all six universities will interact over the course of the program, sharing information about their local food systems and conditions and collaborating on projects.
Nayak met many of his co-directors—not to mention his mentor, Joyner—through his participation the ELN program and its subsequent forum, and he says he credits the programing with helping him develop both his leadership skills and the project that led to this grant-funded opportunity.
“The ELN program really helped me,” says Nayak. “(And) I was really happy that ELN helped me build this multi-state project that is going to help a lot of future food science students."
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