Project Accelerator Leads to New Grant and Ongoing Partnership

Article by Stacey Stearns, University of Connecticut

A new USDA-NIFA funded project will develop cohorts of 4-H youth and create biotechnology video games. The games will convey fun and science-based information about biotechnology such as genetic engineering. They will also build public confidence in the safe use of biotechnology in agriculture and the food system. The project will also provide education to youth on career opportunities. The University of Connecticut (UConn) Extension, together with faculty members of other departments in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR), is leading the project in partnership with the Learning Games Laboratory at New Mexico State University (NMSU).

Youth will take part in meetings and game jams with the UConn and NMSU teams. Curricula includes 4-H experiential lessons, industry field trips and speakers. The team will develop and share outreach materials including two interactive games and videos. NMSU’s role is developing the games with the 4-H youth, allowing them to understand the design and development process.

4-H members will build knowledge and career awareness through the program. They will also experience the 4-H fundamentals of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. These all align with a Whole Child approach through the 4-H Thrive Model. Evaluation will include the 4-H Common Measures validated instrument.

“Our project will propel innovative biotechnology and STEM career work in our 4-H youth development program to the next level. We will sustain project outcomes through ongoing support from our partners. This is a strategic growth area for the 4-H program and Extension,” says Jennifer Cushman, the principal investigator on the grant. Cushman is also the co-team leader for the UConn 4-H program.

This new grant project builds off the successful completion of a game prototype by the UConn and NMSU teams. In 2017, a group of extension educators and faculty members of CAHNR formed the UConn GMO Working Group. Members of the Group became part of the New Technologies in Agricultural Extension (NTAE) Year Two program. NTAE is a program of the Extension Foundation in partnership with Oklahoma State University. UConn’s team knew that food marketing labels create confusion for consumers. We shared an interest in helping consumers find science-based information.

We decided to create a game about food marketing labels and focus on the non-GMO, organic, and natural labels for our NTAE project. Our team identified 19 different food labels that cause consumer confusion. Our experience with games was as players and creating a game was a challenge. We reached out to the Learning Games Laboratory at New Mexico State University (NMSU) to create our game.

Both teams started working on the NTAE project. The UConn team created the game content while the NMSU team developed the game infrastructure. Our limited budget meant that we created a game prototype. Literature review showed that this was a promising educational outreach method for our audiences and we wanted to secure additional funding for more game-based learning projects.

UConn team members identified the Food and Agriculture Non-Formal Education (FANE) grant proposal as an area where we could expand. Game-based education is a fun and engaging way to share science-based information with our audiences. The team developed our proposal in collaboration with NMSU. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture at USDA selected us for funding in the fall of 2021. The project, Advancing 4-H Youth Careers in Food and Agriculture via Biotechnology and STEM, is active through 2025. The UConn 4-H team and NMSU will continue supporting the project when the grant concludes.

The NTAE program is a project accelerator meant to help teams quickly scale up newer projects. These positively impact Extension’s audiences and build innovation into programs. UConn team members worked with Chuck Hibberd and Scott Reed, our project catalysts. We also received support from the Extension Foundation’s key informant services. These included digital engagement, marketing, leadership development, partnerships, publishing, and professional development. Our recently funded project demonstrates the success of the NTAE model in helping teams accelerate projects and positively impact audiences.

The UConn team includes Joseph Bonelli, Jennifer Cushman, Sharon Gray, Robert Ricard, Stacey Stearns of Extension; Cristina Connolly of Agricultural and Resource Economics; Mike Puglisi of Nutritional Sciences, and Cindy Tian of Animal Science.

The NMSU team includes Adrian Aguirre, David Abraham, Matheus Cezarotto, Barbara Chamberlin, John “CC” Chamberlain, Anastasia Hames, Pamela Martinez, Philip McVann, and Amy Smith Muise. All are part of the Department of Innovative Media, Research, and Extension at NMSU.

Visit s.uconn.edu/unpeeled for more information on the NTAE project and s.uconn.edu/biotech for more information on the new project.

This work is supported by the Food and Agriculture Nonformal Education program, grant no. 2022-68018-36094 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.