Hunger Fighters

Get out of your comfort zone and try to understand people’s lives that are different than yours.   –Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, recipient of the 2015 World Food Prize

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Rachel researched water sanitation and access in the DRC; Marisa’s paper was about water sanitation in India.

The World Food Prize honors scientists and humanitarians around the world who have made a significant contribution to the fight against hunger. It was established by Norman Borlaug, who is sometimes called “The man who saved 1 billion lives” for his work in developing a drought-resistant variety of wheat that, over time, saved those estimated one billion lives. Scientists such as Purdue’s Dr. Gebisa Ejeta (2009) and Dr. Philip Nelson (2007) have been recognized for their work in fighting hunger as have humanitarian leaders of the caliber of this year’s winner, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the visionary from Bangladesh who founded BRAC, the world’s largest NGO.

In 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1986, he conceived the idea of the World Food Prize to honor individuals who had made significant contributions to ending world hunger.  Later still, in 1994, he established the World Food Prize Global 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/Global Youth 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.

Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gabisa Ejeta.
Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gebisa Ejeta.

I’ve just returned from the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute proceedings in Des Moines. My colleague and I have three years of sponsoring students under our belts; we’ve sent students on to Iowa every year—and every year we’ve come away from this amazing conference recommitted to the cause. I’ve written about the World Food Prize essay contest before (See https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/winners-all/ and https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/changed-lives-the-world-food-prize/), but I can’t help writing again about the incredible opportunities this program extends to students and the profound impact it has upon their lives.

As a former English teacher, of course I value the writing and thinking skills that such a challenging paper demands. Gathering information and evaluating it for its recency, credibility, and specificity; sorting and organizing it all into a coherent problem/solution format; and then writing the paper in tight but fluid prose is no mean feat.

To be in the presence of great scientists—at the regional competition and again at the Institute—is awe-inspiring. Most students have no idea what a professional conference looks like, let alone even know that professionals in any field gather regularly to present papers, engage in dialogue, participate in panel discussions about timely topics, and hammer out approaches to common problems. Watching leading scientists, small holder farmers, representatives from NGOs, and agribusiness growers present information about (for example) aquaculture, conservation agriculture, and the nutritional impact of sweet potatoes in Africa is mind-expanding. Who would think such topics would captivate high school students whose background is not necessarily agriculture? But the students were not just snagged; they were hooked by the passion of the speakers and the complexity of the world of agriculture. They recognized the importance of something they’d always taken for granted—food—and the urgency of the challenge to feed 9 billion by 2050.

The culminating event for the high school students is a presentation at the end of the Institute to a panel of scientists and agriculture experts (even the laureates themselves, including this year’s winner) who read the students’ papers and interact with them.

One of our students, Rachel, in introducing herself prior to presenting her paper on water sanitation and access in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared, her tone earnest and her demeanor sincere, “I didn’t think this experience would affect me the way it did. Food is the key to everything. I didn’t really realize that before I wrote my paper.”

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Rachel and two other students discussing their presentations.

I had watched Rachel intently throughout the conference. Because she has always been a little bit shy, I wondered if she would feel overwhelmed by the experience in Iowa. But the reverse happened. It was like watching a flower unfold in Disney’s Fantasia. She sat at lunch and dinner with students, teachers, and professionals from all over the world, gaining confidence every time she initiated a conversation or answered a question. Her public speaking skills soared: Her own presentation was animated, thoughtful, and nuanced by very natural vocal and facial expressions. One of the experts evaluating her performance told he was “touched” by her comments about the impact of the experience on her thinking.

But the benefits don’t end there, with students developing an English teacher’s skill set.

The impact on career choices, college majors, even the choice of a particular college is significant.  Rachel said she had come into the program certain she wanted to pursue criminology but was now considering a career in public relations or international relations.  Another student, one I don’t know personally said, “This program made me consider college majors I’d never thought of. It made me aware of issues I’d never heard of.”

Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines—the top essayists—become eligible to apply for 2-month summer internships to do real science themselves. Last year, 23 students were awarded Borlaug-Ruan Internships to pursue science in locations around the world. They worked with top scientists in all areas of agriculture, agronomy, and food science. Each of the students returned to Iowa this past week to give a poster presentation of their research.

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Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines are also eligible to apply for Carver-Wallace internships here in the United States.  So far, 110 students have been Carver-Wallace Fellows; among them, one of our own students. Caroline, who competed two years ago, interned at the USDA facility on the Purdue campus the summer after high school; her experience there morphed into a job with the USDA while she attended college at Purdue.

The mission of the Global Youth Institute is to inspire students to answer the call to fight hunger in the world—as scientists, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, business leaders, growers, teachers, and manufacturers (among other occupations).

“Even if you become, say, a banker,” Sir Fazle Husan Abed elaborated in his luncheon address, “you’ll be a better banker for that. Doing for others leads to a satisfying life. If that is not your occupation, make it your preoccupation.”

In the next 40 years, according to a senior officer from DuPont who spoke in Des Moines, we will need to provide more food than we have produced in the last 10,000 years. The world needs young people to make fighting hunger their life’s work. Reaching out to them—when they’re on the brink of life decisions—is what the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute does well.

Some, of course, won’t go into agriculture or nutrition or science. But no matter their career path, they’ll never forget the message they’ve learned, the skills they’ve gained, or the opportunities afforded them because of their participation in the Global Youth Institute. They’ll never take food for granted again.

Learning about World Hunger: Five Big Benefits

This post began as a letter to parents explaining the benefits of  participation in the intense and demanding World Food Prize essay contest.  From my point of view as a teacher, there are five big benefits. In about a thousand words, here is what this competition teaches our kids. 

Dear Parents, P1040079

The World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute competition is underway! We thought you would like to more about the program and why we are so committed to it and so excited that your student has elected to participate.

To begin with, food insecurity—sometimes called, more simply, hunger—is a problem around the world—including right here in Indiana. Did you know that 1 in 6 Hoosiers don’t know where their next meal is coming from? That means that nearly 17% of the population of our state is food insecure.  Right here in our county, the statistic for children is even higher: 20.1%.

The problem is even worse than that in developing countries.

It isn’t that we don’t have enough food in the world—in fact, we do. But a host of factors contribute to the problem of hunger. For example, distribution is an issue in a country like Afghanistan. The US can send technical assistance to farmers in Afghanistan to help them become more efficient and increase their yield—but roads to take their produce to market are poor or non-existent. Food is wasted and people in the cities go hungry.

The problem could be war. In South Sudan and Syria, organizations like the United Nations World Food Programme and Oxfam International deliver food aid—but ongoing violence often prevents the food from reaching refugee camps.

The problem could be land ownership. In many parts of India, women can’t own land—and research shows that when women have a stake in ownership, problems with food insecurity decrease.

The problem could be disease or drought. Here in Indiana, at Purdue University, agronomists like Gebesa Ejeta, who was awarded the World Food Prize for developing a drought-resistant variety of sorghum that thrives in Ethiopia, work to increase yields from challenged soils in countries around the world. Agricultural research can solve some of the problems that cause food insecurity, but the solutions don’t happen overnight.

P1040127 Last year, when we attended the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, students had a chance to hear world-class scientists from Monsanto talk about their research. The students visited the headquarters of DuPont Pioneer and learned about the work Pioneer is doing here in the United States as well as around the world.

Participation in the World Food Prize competition is eye-opening for students. Bottom line: They learn a lot. In fact, they become incredibly well-informed about agriculture, the food crisis in a particular country, and specific solutions to the crisis.

They develop skills—especially in writing and speaking—that will serve them well in the years ahead. The WFP competition is the most rigorous writing project they will ever do in high school—and it positions these students well for the rigors of college writing. The same goes for speaking: Our kids have the opportunity to present their work orally to a panel of Purdue professors. Talk about developing confidence and poise and learning to think on your feet!  And all of this comes packaged in one-on-one coaching by the two of us: a science teacher and an English teacher.

They learn to think critically. The solutions to world hunger aren’t simple. The factors that contribute to food insecurity are complex and interrelated. Students learn to examine a problem through more than one lens and select solutions that are likely to have the most impact on the country they have chosen to study. Learning to discern a solution to a complex problem is a life skill.

They develop passion and compassion–for this topic, for world affairs, for helping people in need. They never look at the world the same way again. In fact, their passion may turn into a career, into a lifetime of work in agriculture, science, public service, international relations, engineering, governmental affairs, foods and nutrition, and a host of other related fields. Talk about opportunity!

Three of our 2013 participants spoke to the School Board last fall about their experience with the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute essay and their presentations at Purdue and in Des Moines. The students explained what their research was about and described the impact of the program upon them. Here are the points they made when school board members asked them what they’d learned:

  1. The enormity of the problem of food insecurity
  2. The complexity of the problems in the countries they studied
  3. The complexity of the solutions
  4. The compassion of the people working in the field to solve the problems
  5. The passion of the people involved in the solutions—scientists, aid workers, civil engineers
  6. The growth they experienced academically because of their participation (writing and speaking skills, specifically)
  7. A broadened awareness of the problems in food security
  8. An appreciation they hadn’t had before for agriculture
  9. And the understanding that their everyday concerns are miniscule compared to the survival needs of the people in the countries they studied.

They didn’t use all of those words—#9, for example, came out as “I’m worried about a paper and these people are starving!” They used words such as “amazed” and “humbled.”

Afterwards, one boy wrote a downright touching email, saying he would be “forever thankful” for this whole experience. He spoke in his note about the skills he had developed and his certainty that they would follow him into college and on into his professional life. This same boy spoke at the school board meeting of the broadened vision he had gained. He had been attracted to the WFP project by his political interests, which he still has, but his takeaway was that there aren’t black and white solutions—“You have to look at the people where they are and understand their situations.” In essence, you have to appreciate the on-the-ground realities.

If you have questions about the World Food Prize itself or about the Global Youth Institute, please visit the website at Purdue or the World Food Prize website itself:

https://ag.purdue.edu/wfp/Pages/default.aspx

http://www.worldfoodprize.org/

Or ask us! We would be happy to talk to you and answer any specific questions you may have.

Once again, we are so excited—and thrilled that your son or daughter has signed on to participate in the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute competition. They will be winners just for participating!

The Coaches

Forty Chances

If we’re lucky, writes Howard Buffett, we have about forty chances in our working lives to “get it right.”

Howard Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett—not as well known as his father, but a man who is also making his mark upon the world. For Buffett the son—and for his son, too—the “work” is primarily  agriculture and the arena is the world. Buffett’s foundation funds projects related to food and water security, conflict resolution in developing countries, and a few other projects of special interest such as cheetah and mountain gorilla conservation. For Howard, getting it right means using the 26.5 million dollars his father gave to him for philanthropic purposes wisely, strategically, and effectively.

Fundamentally, Howard G. Buffett is a farmer—he lives and farms in Decatur, Illinois. He’s an accomplished photographer, too, so 40 Chances is illustrated with photographs he’s taken all over the world. He’s also the author of Fragile: The Human Condition, a collection of photographs of and essays about vulnerable places he’s been in the world—130 countries—and the people he’s seen there. Published in 2009 by National Geographic, the book is immense, beautiful, and eye-opening. So Howard Buffett’s commitment to issues of food insecurity is long-standing and substantial: He’s not a celebrity flirting with a cause.

The title—and the concept—of 40 Chances originated from a spiel Buffett heard at the farm implement company in Decatur. The owner was showcasing a new line of John Deere equipment; the pitch was that the company realized their clients had about forty opportunities to perfect their business before their working time was up. The company wanted to supply the farmers with the best possible equipment and advise them on how to use it to advantage.  The idea of “forty chances” stuck with Buffett and brought not only his farming but his philanthropic efforts into sharp focus.

The stories in the book (forty of them) are about the problems he’s witnessed in specific countries, other problems that are more general, and the specific solutions that have worked in those countries—and some that haven’t and why. From these experiences, Buffett has evolved his ethic of funding.  He’s careful about the projects he funds and the people he invests in, and he’s learned to pay attention to these principles:

  1. What we think we know doesn’t automatically transfer to other parts of the world. You have to pay attention to the local geography, customs, and culture.
  2. Policy matters. You can’t get the right results if you don’t have the right policies.
  3. Dream big—but be realistic. Set reachable goals.
  4. Believe in people. Find amazing people and fund them to do the work they propose.

I took the wording of those principles straight from Buffett himself. I heard him speak at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2013.  The book provides amplification of these guiding principles and sets forth a few others.

Buffet writes in his book about ineffective practices—such as funding projects that aren’t sustainable—and he goes into detail about some that are just plain wrong-headed—like  monetization. That’s the practice, authorized by the 1985 Food Security Act, of NGOs or recipient countries reselling a percentage of direct food aid to generate cash for other development projects. Sending our food surpluses to food insecure countries for monetization drives the prices down for locally produced food and creates a marketing problem for farmers in the country that the food was supposed to help. Food that is monetized may even end up on the plates of tourists rather than in the stomachs of food insecure individuals.

In emergencies—such as natural disasters—or in situations where procuring food locally is cost-prohibitive—situations, for example, where transportation costs make local purchases uneconomical—direct food aid is critical. However, sending direct food aid often removes the incentive for local solutions to long-standing problems of food insecurity. In many cases, Buffett favors direct cash aid in the first place; he believes the US should at least reexamine its policies about the mix of cash and food we send to food insecure countries.

More of Buffett’s basic beliefs:  Good governance in developing countries is critical to success in solving issues of food insecurity.  Land ownership motivates good stewardship—so he’s in favor of land rights for farmers and reform of land laws in countries where women especially are marginalized. He stresses the importance of the value chain—everything from farm to market has to work or the project may fail. Farmers might harvest an improved crop due to technical assistance, but if the roads are so bad they can’t get their crop to market, what has been gained?

Howard Buffett will make some American farmers uneasy. He favors no-till methods and doesn’t believe in subsidies the way they currently work. He’s not opposed to genetically-modified seed. He practices what he calls “conservation farming,” but that doesn’t mean organic farming.  He doesn’t think organic farming can be practiced on a large enough scale to feed the world.

And that’s his mission: To feed the world.

Right now, according to the organization “Feeding America,” one-sixth of the people in the USA—50 million Americans—are “food insecure.”  That means they don’t  know for sure where the next meal is coming from.  According to the United Nations, that number worldwide is 870 million people.  It’s no surprise then that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projection for 2050 is grim:  Food production will have to increase worldwide by 70 percent to feed us all.

Whether you agree with all of Buffett’s views, you have to give the man credit. He is the recipient of many awards—for example, he’s been named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger; he was the recipient of the World Ecology Award and the Triumph of Agriculture Exposition Agri Award. ColumbiaUniversity honored him with the Global Leadership Award. And that’s just the beginning of the kudos and accolades. He’s doing about as much as anyone can in his crusade against hunger, in his effort to feed the world. Money well spent, a life well lived, forty chances not gone to waste.

I started out, as I sat down to write this, to apply the “forty chances” concept to us as teachers. It does apply, of course. Forty years is about the span of our working lives, too, and most of us are still perfecting our art, polishing our skills, trying “to get it right,” right up to the very last day.

But I couldn’t stop writing about the book. 40 Chances, now on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. It is an unusual book to have fallen into my hands. I am usually reading literary classics or recent fiction, even literary non-fiction, but not a book about agriculture.  However, my interest in international issues is deep—especially international education efforts.  I heard Buffett speak at the World Food Prize Conference I attended in October, the conference also known as the Borlaug Dialogue. And the obvious struck me: If children are food insecure, if they’re hungry literally, their hunger for learning can’t be fed.

So I’m impressed with what I’ve read and I am recommending 40 Chances to you.  Let us hope that Howard Buffett continues to use his remaining chances wisely and that he has many more. As for us, the same: We have forty chances. Let’s use them well.

Changed Lives: The World Food Prize

It isn’t often that you come away from an event knowing with certainty that lives have been changed. 

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But in October, that’s exactly how I felt. One hundred and forty-six students from 27 states and 7 foreign countries assembled in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, for the Global Youth Institute, held in conjunction with the presentation of this year’s World Food Prize.

If you have followed my blog for long, you may remember that I wrote about the World Food Prize last spring. (See “Second Skin” and “Winners All.”) A colleague at my high school, a biology teacher whom I admire, had learned about the World Food Prize essay competition, a contest on the subject of world hunger. Students would choose a country somewhere in the world,  do research, and then write about issues of food insecurity in that country. My colleague asked me to help her coach the students who signed on to the challenge. The final  papers—as many as 10 pages long, single-spaced, thoroughly documented in MLA format—were written with no promise of any extrinsic reward and turned out to be far more complex than any the students had written before—even in AP classes.

At the end of  March, the five students we coached presented their papers before a panel of Purdue University professors, all of them connected in some way to agriculture and food science. One of our students—Caroline—had written about India and the issue of land law reform. If women owned land, she argued, agricultural improvements and increased food supplies would not only decrease hunger and malnutrition but would contribute to the elevation of women’s status and thus to a decrease in gender-based violence.

All of our students wrote papers like this—one was about hydroponic produce in the Gaza Strip, another was about water sanitation in Cambodia—but Caroline’s essay and  her subsequent oral defense of her work qualified her to attend the national conference—the 2013 Borlaug Dialogue—in Des Moines. Over the summer, she revised her paper, resubmitted it, and then waited for the event in October—the event that changed lives.

This was a full scale conference—called the Borlaug Dialogue in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1970, food scientist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug, “the man who saved more lives than anyone else on earth.” Working as a young scientist in Mexico in the 1940s, Borlaug developed a disease-resistant strain of wheat that made Mexico less dependent upon imported grain. His work was the beginning of the Green Revolution in India and Pakistan in the 1950s. His contribution to peace in the world—by increasing the world’s food supply and saving millions, perhaps a billion, from starvation—is unparalleled.

The conference, held in Des Moines, Iowa, was attended by food scientists, statesmen, NGO leaders, academicians, and agribusiness men and women. Attendees listened to thought-provoking speakers and panel presentations, ate delicious, eco-friendly, catered meals that concluded with keynote addresses or round table discussions, and viewed posters explaining work being done to fight hunger around the world by various NGOs.

The students took in most of this, but the Global Youth Institute, their conference, ran in tandem with the Borlaug Dialogue, and students followed its schedule, too: a farm tour, an opportunity to package food for Outreach International, a Hunger Dinner organized on Friday night by Oxfam. The climax was on Saturday morning when the students again presented their papers, this time to distinguished scientists who were attending the conference—scientists like previous World Food Prize honorees Dr. Philip Nelson (2007) and Dr. Gabisa Ejeta (2009) from Purdue University.

  • So what changed lives? Was it Howard Buffett, an international philanthropist (and son of Warren Buffett) whose interest is in agriculture? Buffet told the audience that we all have about 40 chances in our lives to do something for the world. We don’t get unlimited opportunities—40 years is about the span of our working lives. We have that many chances to “get it right,” whatever our goal. His is feeding the world.
  • Was it the President of Iceland, a learned and engaging speaker who told the students that the melting of polar ice will have a greater effect on their lives than anything else?  In a talk entitled “Ice, Energy, and Food,” he explained the geothermal aspects of the polar melt and outlined the subsequent effects on countries around the world.
  • Was it Tony Blair, explaining we need to pay attention to the priorities of the people in developing countries and to listen to them: They just might know more than we do.

P1040108Or perhaps it was at the Hunger Banquet.  Teachers and students drew cards as they entered the room and were sent, depending upon the color of their cards, to one side or the other or to a spot on the floor. On the right, tables had been set for an elegant multi-course meal—15% of the participants landed there. Another 25% were sent to chairs along the wall. That group, those who are barely “making it” in the world, got a dinner of rice and lentils, served on paper plates. The rest of the participants ended up on the floor. They represented the 60% of the world that is food insecure. Their dinner was rice only, served directly into their hands from great bowls placed on the floor.

People reacted in myriad ways. Some on the floor accepted their fate, some begged and even stole food, others bartered. Some of the 15% shared willingly or even tried to give their food away. Some people served as intermediaries between the rich and the poor.

The students voiced their reactions and their takeaways after the dinner. One student, an articulate young woman who had been a Borlaug Intern in India the previous summer (an opportunity yet ahead for this year’s crop of students) said to the group at the end of the dinner, “If we are going to help in the world, I believe it has to start with empathy.”

Maybe it was the World Food Prize winners themselves who changed the lives of the young people in the room. All of the laureates this year are microbiologists who have relentlessly conducted basic scientific research that has, after years of study, yielded advances in the genetically modified seeds. They spoke at lunch about their lives in science: about the curiosity that sparked their quest, about the discipline and persistence that science requires, about the mostly friendly competition among their labs, about the electricity—and the satisfaction—they felt when their experiments worked and new knowledge was born.  Any budding scientist in the audience had to have been inspired.

Or perhaps it was the same three scientists giving the students some advice at the end of the conference—passing on some life lessons:

  • Dr. Robert T. Fraley: Pretend that 37 years from now you are 56 years old and toward the end of you career. What will you be thinking about? It believe it will be your friends and colleagues and the few lasting contributions you will have made in the world—those moments that will come from deep inside you. Nothing else will matter.
  • Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton: Do what you want to do. Follow your love. That is the place where you will succeed.
  • Dr. Marc Von Montagu: Whatever discipline you go into, question the knowledge. Take a scientific approach.

Maybe it was the posters and presentations by Borlaug Interns—students from the previous year who had applied for and won the twenty coveted summer opportunities to conduct research on site in countries all over the world. That, by the way, is the prize for the students who attended the Global Youth Institute. P1040132Their work is distinguished enough that they’ve earned the right to apply for an overseas internship—while they’re still in high school. The students I heard presenting their papers and discussing the impact of their experiences abroad are all committed to the further pursuit of answers to the problem of hunger.

The last event of the Global Youth Institute brought students and distinguished scientists together in small groups. The students presented their papers orally (those summer revisions) and the scientists, including the new laureates and those from other years, like Phil Nelson and Gabisa Ejeta and M. S. Swaminathan (the first World Food Prize laureate of all), responded to them. The scientists asked questions, commented, praised the students and challenged them—much as the Purdue professors had done in the spring. Imagine the impact of a world class scientist listening to a high school student’s paper: This was the high point of the conference for our student, the piece that has motivated her to apply for an internship.

The event that changed lives. I don’t mean the Global Youth Institute/Borlaug Dialogue was a conversion experience—these kids already appreciate the seriousness and depth of world hunger. I don’t mean that they did an about-face on their career goals—most of them already know they want to go into agronomy or biology or engineering or such.

The change they underwent is more like a photographer putting a panoramic lens on the camera. Suddenly, the world is wider. “I saw there was poverty everywhere,” said one Borlaug Intern who saw it halfway around the world as well as here in America. “I see that technology can help,” said another, thinking perhaps of the cell phones that smallholder farmers in the developing world use to keep abreast of market value for their crops. Technology for this student is far more now than cool aps, the latest iPhone, or social networking.

At the same time, it’s as if each student has placed a close-up of herself in relief against that panorama–like a Facebook user uploads a profile photo against the banner on her page.  Each scholar stands in relief against that panoramic background, the student’s relationship to the wider world now more sharply defined. “My internship solidified what I want to do in college,” I heard one young woman say.  Because of their experiences at the Global Youth Institute, a biology major will narrow her options to plant pathology. An aspiring engineer will someday develop farm implements that can work the African soil. Someone interested in science generally will become a nutritionist.

It is in this way that lives have changed—and that the lives of those who live with hunger will change.

Norman Borlaug is still saving lives.

Visit the World Food Prize website: http://www.worldfoodprize.org/

Read the students’ papers: http://www.worldfoodprize.org/index.cfm?nodeID=69493&audienceID=1

Winners All

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.

Second Skin

I slipped into the task like putting on a second skin.

Since the beginning of this semester, I’ve been working with a high school science teacher on a project tailor-made for co-teaching. She had gotten wind of an essay contest—the World Food Prize Essay Contest for high school students, sponsored by Purdue University, home to two World Food Prize winners. The contest is an opportunity for high school students to learn about and address issues of food insecurity around the world. What this teacher proposed was a melding of our areas of expertise—science and English—with the added fillip for both of us of the international focus.

In December, I perused the contest particulars.

The format was fundamentally a problem-solution paper. Background on the country came first. In the sample paper provided by Purdue, the winner from last year had painted a picture of Afghanistan in condensed, tightly written prose that led directly to the paper’s thesis: The central issues surrounding food insecurity in Afghanistan and some solutions that would alleviate them. Then, a lengthy and thoroughly researched discussion of those problems and solutions, and finally, a summation and restatement of the thesis. All of this, of course, documented with in-text citations and a works cited page in MLA format.

It was certainly a longer paper and a more complicated research project than any of our students would ever have undertaken—but not impossible at all. Especially when we broke the paper down for the kids and laid it out in steps for them. You notice, I am already saying “our kids.” It didn’t take me long to feel like a teacher of kids again.

Writing a research paper is one of the most difficult tasks high school students undertake. It’s a long process, and that’s hard in itself for kids with attention spans that last no longer than a Facebook post. Then, reading is involved—and with that, the pesky but fundamental comprehension skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. Then, the organizing of all that information: in the day, with index cards, each labeled with the author, title, page number, topic and subtopic, and perhaps—if I had been your teacher—marked as a paraphrase, a summary, a quote, or a basic fact.

We don’t do that anymore. Today, kids keep binders that contain printouts of the articles they’ve found, all tabbed alphabetically and highlighted for easy access to information the student intends to use in the paper. Increasingly, as they and we become more eco-conscious, the students don’t even keep binders. They create folders on their desktops. For the organized among them, this works just fine. For the others, it’s the beginning of a nightmare.

Some teachers still require outlines, a skill to be taught all by itself. I used to demand sentence outlines because the students would be forced to think their  papers through. Some of the first problems arise at this point: Just knowing the difference between a topic and its support befuddles some kids. They’ll use a quote for a main idea and a fact as a topic. But if their outlines are complete, I can read them and tell the students where the holes are. A few students will realize that with a sentence outline and well-organized index cards or binders, the paper will write itself.

For some students, actually writing the paper is the stumbling block. It means sitting in a chair for a long period of time and composing one sentence after another until the end.

But it’s not the end: Now come the in-text citations and the bibliography or works cited page. For some students, this is the trickiest part because it requires having kept track of all their resources (those index cards or the tabbed binders again) and having developed a system for keying all the quotes, statistics, examples, stories, facts, and details that they used for support to the ideas in the outline. For kids who can’t keep their lockers or their bedrooms tidy, this is a sorting and classifying task like no other!

And it’s still not the end: editing and proofreading and cross-checking the citations remain. And nowadays, even one more step: submission of the document to a plagiarism detection program like Turn It In, the advent of which was a boon to exhausted teachers, who used to have to google suspect lines or search through the students’ binders and cards to prove the student had copied. (You dare not even hint at plagiarism without the proof in hand!) Used as it’s intended, though, and done soon enough before the paper is due, the program serves as a plagiarism prevention program. I know many kids who have been saved from academic disaster by Turn It In, and I’d far rather coach a kid through the process of paraphrasing than nab him or her for plagiarism.

Are you tired just reading all this?

And you don’t have to read the papers! Or send them back for revisions and read them a second time!

Are you impressed with the sheer complexity of the task?  Me, too. I am always proud of my students when they reach the end of this task—even if their papers aren’t stellar, they’ve accomplished a complex task.  Perfection will come with maturity, experience, and the incentive of researching a topic they really care about (which they’ll do increasingly as they narrow down their academic pursuits to their life’s work).

So I knew very well what the World Peace Prize essay contestants would face as they researched a topic they knew nothing about—a country and its problems with food insecurity—and wrote the longest and most thoroughly documented paper they’d ever attempted. But I also knew that any student who elected to enter this contest would be self-motivated (no grades involved, no extra credit), willing to read, and immensely capable.

So yes, we had to help some of them select a country from a list of over 100 and choose a factor (the contest organizers presented them with a list of 19 factors that impact food security), help others select resources and evaluate those resources for credibility and authority, and talk all of them through their research—help them make sense of what they had read. But this was kind of fun for us as teachers. My colleague and I got wrapped up in the topic ourselves.

We both read the students’ early drafts and made suggestions for revisions (We were excited that we noticed and commented on the very same things) and then, at the end, I helped them with the documentation and works cited page by cross-checking their citations.

One boy did need major help with this part—and so I spent two hours yesterday teaching him how to do it, sitting beside him as he hunted out the source of each statistic and quote, each example and fact. I sat across from him while he reconstructed his works cited page and watched as he formatted the paper to meet the contest requirements. It’s not that he hadn’t been taught this process before, but I suspect such things had never mattered to him before.

But he was receptive yesterday—because suddenly, such things did matter. These papers were going out into the real world, would be read by a real audience, and since the boy cared immensely about his topic and had written a very strong paper, he really cared that he got the citations and the works cited page right.

My colleague submitted the papers yesterday after school. We think there are some among them that could be winners…but in truth, all of the students are winners. They completed this difficult task and have taken away a lifetime understanding of a serious global issue and a skill set for research that will make any paper they write from here on out, a breeze.

And I had the delicious experience of co-teaching with a colleague I admire, watching her coach the students in high-level analysis of substantial and substantive scientific information and using again myself the teaching skills I have learned over a lifetime spent in the classroom.

It was a win all around.