Grant will expand mission of ISU plant breeding outreach in Africa

AMES, Iowa – An Iowa State University effort to kick start a new generation of plant breeding in Africa is expanding its mission.

A new three-year, $750,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will allow ISU personnel to produce professional development materials for faculty at three African universities who teach plant breeding to master’s students.

The grant widens the scope of the project, which began nearly two years ago as an effort to design e-learning materials that tap online and electronic teaching methods for students. But Michael Retallick, an associate professor of agricultural education and studies, said the ISU team discovered that additional material designed specifically for faculty would enhance the project.

“We found that the faculty at the African universities needed additional support to integrate the electronic modules we were developing into their curriculum,” Retallick said.

The current teaching methods employed by the faculty often rely on what Retallick refers to as “stand and deliver.” That means plenty of lectures and rote memorization. This new facet of the project will produce professional development tools for the faculty to shift their instruction to incorporate real-world problem solving and hands-on learning, he said.

Iowa State faculty will travel to the African universities for week-long visits, during which the ISU personnel will observe classes and conduct workshops. Iowa State will also host the African faculty at two symposia every year.

But Retallick stressed that the instruction will remain entirely in the hands of the local African faculty.

“We’re a consultant and a resource and a support system, but we’re not the ones teaching the students,” he said. “It’s the local faculty who will do that.”

By the end of the grant period, Retallick said the effort will have produced a set of best teaching practices and professional development tools for African faculty to teach plant breeding more effectively.

The overall project, titled “Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa,” began in 2013 as an effort to design and develop online and electronic educational materials for students seeking master’s degrees in plant breeding. The e-learning materials are being designed for use at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, Makerere University in Uganda and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

The e-modules capitalize on Iowa’s plant breeding expertise, and will help train a new generation of plant breeders the continent will need to feed its growing population, said Walter Suza, an adjunct assistant professor of agronomy.

“Crop improvement has a tremendous impact in improving livelihoods, and it’s especially critical for Africa, where yields are so low and food insecurity is common,” Suza said. “And right now we’re seeing a lack of trained plant breeders to bring about the changes we’d like to see in crops of importance to Africa.”

Suza, who grew up in Tanzania and has worked in Angola and Zimbabwe, said the e-modules are currently undergoing a second round of revisions and cover topics such as crop genetics, molecular plant breeding and crop improvement. The ISU personnel are tailoring the content to match plant breeding challenges specific to Africa, he said. So the material includes plants commonly grown in Africa such as sweet potatoes, maize, common bean, cassava, sorghum and rice.

Retallick said the innovative use of communication technologies may provide a model that could be applied to other disciplines in higher education in Africa as well.

“We see this as a potential pilot program that could be tried at other schools in Africa to address other academic subjects,” he said.

Suza said the ISU project team includes a broad range of expertise. Experts in agronomy, horticulture, engineering and agricultural education have all contributed, he said.