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Agriculture grad students participate in Feed the Future “Hackathon” event

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The Department of Agriculture had an exciting and successful year in 2017. A team of three international graduate students, Samuel A. Johnson and Fatima Mohammad from Ghana, and Vania Pereira who is from Brazil, participated in the “Revitalizing Extension for Agricultural Development University Student ‘Hackathon.’” Assistant Professor Maria Boerngen advised the students. “I was asked by three graduate students to be their advisor, and I was honored and excited to do so,” Boerngen said.

In December 2017, Feed the Future’s Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) and Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension Services (INGENAES) hosted a two-day symposium at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, where groups of individuals from around the world gathered to brainstorm extension-based solutions to agricultural issues in specific developing countries. Leading up to this symposium, universities were given the opportunity to place student teams in a “hackathon-type activity” in which each team was assigned a problem statement for a particular country, and then tasked with developing legitimate implementable solutions to that problem statement.

“This was absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a faculty member here at ISU.” – Assistant Professor Maria Boerngen

Fatima Mohammad said she was influenced to participate in this event because of an email from an Agriculture faculty member. “I am interested in development Agriculture, so I was really excited when I got the mail about the Hackathon from a faculty member,” Mohammad explained. “Also, my class with Dr. Maria on International Trade got me exposed to trade and agricultural issues internationally so that came as an opportunity to learn more and be part of something great.”

Both Johnson and Pereira mentioned their passion for learning about agriculture on an international level and how that influenced their decision to participate in this event. “I have a big interest in international issues mainly in developing countries. This was the point of the project that grabs my attention, the discussion about social and economic issues of farmers in developing countries,” Pereira said. Johnson added, “As an international student, I am always excited about learning different cultures in different parts of the world. I am equally excited about issues relating to agriculture in our world today.”

“We worked during the day and at night till submission.” – Fatima Mohammad

Originally the problem statements were due to be released on November 27, with reports due on December 13. However, those dates shrunk in both directions with the problem statements released on December 1 and reports due by 11:59 p.m. on December 7. Boerngen’s team was assigned a problem statement related to the agriculture sector Honduras. Johnson, Mohammad, and Pereira devoted dozens of hours and many late nights during that intense seven-day period, and were proud to submit their report with a little time to spare on December 7.

The report from the Illinois State graduate students was submitted to the cohort of governmental and NGO professionals at the symposium who were working on the same Honduran problem statement. On December 13, Boerngen and her team participated remotely in the symposium via Skype. The students were able to “meet” the professionals who were brainstorming and strategizing for Honduras, and discussed their ideas. Boerngen’s team report was extremely well received by that group of professionals, and some of their ideas were incorporated into their end-of-symposium report. The team and was invited to join the online DLEC “Community of Practice” where conversations about extension solutions for the developing world are continuing.

Illinois State University was the only participating team from a non-land-grant university.

Johnson, Mohammad, and Pereira all agreed that the most challenging part of participating in this event was the timeline and deadlines. Mohammad explained, “Our biggest challenge we would say was the time frame. We had just few days to put our ideas together, and it happened to be a week before finals. So, it was not that easy. We worked during the day and at night till submission.”

“While future plans for this endeavor are unclear at this time, the team and I may have additional opportunities to work with this group on these types of issues. The timing of this event added a bit of stress at the end of the semester, both for the students and for me. However, this was absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a faculty member here at ISU. It was an honor to mentor and advise these three outstanding graduate students through this experience; I am extremely proud of the results, and look forward to seeing what future opportunities may come from this,” Boerngen said.

It is also worth noting that Illinois State University was the only participating team from a non-land-grant university.

Mohammad wants to become an agriculture professor and academic researcher after completing her master’s degree. “The Hackathon experience reminded me of the task ahead and the role we have to play as agriculturist in helping farmers and improving systems of farming especially in developing countries,” she said.

Pereira plans to continue producing research to aid the needs of farmers and producers to help them enhance production in sustainable ways. She explained, “The Hackathon helped me by the fact of thinking in how the research and knowledge build inside of a university can be applied in the extension service and arrive at the farmers in an easy way for them to use.”

Johnson has a passion and interest in agriculture, particularly in the financial aspects of agriculture. He aspires to “become an investor in agriculture to assist in feeding the growing population in my country and the world as a whole.” He felt that participating in the Hackathon opened his eyes to how vital extension, financial, and research services are in the development of agriculture in every country.