Norman Borlaug: not exactly a household name. But it should be. The father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug has “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.” That’s not hyperbole, that quote from the Atlantic Monthly.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work in developing disease-resistant varieties of wheat, a breakthrough development that he pioneered in Mexico, and replicated in India and Pakistan, expanding the technology to rice and saving millions of lives in the process.
In 1986, he established the World Food Prize to recognize individuals in the field of agriculture whose advancements in science have had a significant impact on the elimination of world hunger.
Later still, in 1994, Norman Borlaug established the World Food Prize Youth Institute, a competition in which high school students study food security issues in countries around the world. After months of research and essay writing, students submit their essays and then present their work orally at regional competitions. The winners there attend the World Food Prize Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, where they interact with some of the most prestigious scientists in the world, learning more about solutions to world hunger and exchanging ideas with these leaders in the field.
We—my high school and my coaching colleague and I—are sending students to Iowa in October: one who ranks among the top five participants in our region and an alternate! Actually, we have a third student who has “advanced,” but she’s a senior this year and therefore can’t compete next fall.
If you read my post “Second Skin,” you know there was one boy who needed help with his citations: He’s our alternate—and he probably will attend. How gratifying is that for the two hours we spent sitting across from each other at a table, whipping those citations into shape???
This past April 4th and 5th, students from the competing schools in Indiana gathered at Purdue (with their coaches) to present their work, exchange ideas, and learn about food science at Purdue. On Thursday evening, the students presented their research findings to panels of experts—Purdue professors from various departments whose own research endeavors concern issues of world hunger. The professors had read all of the students’ research papers—carefully, as we soon discovered—and then queried the students about their research. In small groups and in front of their peers, the students defended their research and their solutions by answering the questions posed by these experts.
This was nothing like the comfortable audience of peers students face in their English or speech classes. The professors were certainly respectful—even friendly—but there was a formality to the setting that high school students rarely experience. The professors posed tough questions and pulled no punches in their questioning. In one case, a professor told a student her statistics were faulty. No gentle suggestion that she “might want to check her facts” as high school teachers sometimes gingerly write in the margins of an ill-researched paper. Nope. “Your statistics are wrong.” Flat out.
You could almost hear the students gasp.
But this is the big leagues. Facts must be right, and when they aren’t, a student needs to know.
After the oral presentations, which we discovered later weighed heavily in the selection of finalists, the students reflected on the process of writing, researching, and presenting their work and conversed with the experts who had questioned them. They gained insight into the way that scientists think, advice on how they could help people in the developing world—even what courses to take in college to combine their specific academic interests and the urge to help globally. One of our students—who wants to go into an engineering field—was told to “look for opportunities to collaborate” with other departments. The opportunities abound, a professor told her, to make a global impact through engineering—for example, in developing relatively simple agricultural tools. He explained that shovels, for example, are designed with adult males in mind–but in some countries, it is women and children who are the chief agriculturalists.
Because of my responsibilities in other schools, I could not attend the day on campus that followed on Friday, but my colleague was there with our five students. She told me that they were welcomed at breakfast by Dr. Jay Akridge, Dean of the College of Agriculture. He applauded the research efforts of all of the participants and, more importantly, validated their selflessness in, at such a young age, wanting to make a difference in the world. During the rest of the morning, the students were introduced to classes and majors at Purdue that would allow them to pursue their area of interest further.
At lunch in the Purdue Memorial Union, the students listened to two Purdue World Food Prize winners, Phil Nelson (2007) and Gabeisa Eijeta (2009). Both men spoke of their research and explained that by first identifying a need, they had been able to discover or invent a solution that had made a difference for people in many poverty-stricken nations.
In the afternoon, the high school students attended sessions in agronomy, biochemistry, agriculture and biological engineering and food science. Each of these sessions involved a hands-on experience. For example, in a visit to the Biochemistry Department, the students loaded and ran an electrophoretic gel to identify a fictitious bacteria found in “homemade” yogurt. In the Agronomy Department, a researcher led the students through a demonstration of some basics of soil chemistry and explained how different soil types affect product growth.
On Friday afternoon, students received written feedback on their research papers and had an opportunity to reflect again on the World Food Prize experience from start to finish. I was there for the wrap-up and was able to listen to the students articulate their take-aways from the World Food Prize experience. In general, students remarked that they had not only benefitted personally from the experience, but that they had been inspired because they had participated in a project “bigger than themselves.” Many said their eyes had been opened, their lives changed.
A week later, the results were announced. That is when we learned that several of our five students would advance. But the fact is, we have five winners. For all of these students, the prize is not the public recognition of their accomplishment, not the resume item or the activity they can list on their college applications, but the insight they have gained, the perseverance they have practiced, the skills they have mastered. Their hearts have been touched by the depth of their exposure to issues of poverty and hunger and their minds have been expanded beyond what they could have imagined when they first began their research.
Norman Borlaug intended to enter the field of forestry. In fact, he had a job lined up with the US Forest Service after graduation from college. However, tight money during the Depression delayed his start by six months. While he waited, Borlaug decided to stay on at the University of Minnesota and take some more classes. One day, quite by chance, he attended a lecture on plant pathology that changed the direction of his life. He decided not to take that job with the Forest Service and, instead, entered the Ph.D. program in plant pathology. The rest, as they say, is history.
Our students took a chance on a competition that was time-consuming and intellectually demanding, on a writing project that wasn’t easy, on an endeavor for which every reward has been intrinsic—not an easy sell for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. But look what has happened. Is it possible, just possible, that in signing on for the World Food Prize competition, by studying the topic and factor that they did, they have found direction for their life work?
Every night, one in seven people in the world goes to bed hungry. It is possible that one of these amazing students will someday make a discovery that changes those odds? Imagine. It could happen.