Tech awarded $3 million NSF grant for work in food, energy, water resources in rural communities

From left, Sabrina Bauer, Angelica Lance, Jake Ramaker and Kellie Malone work on a grant-related project.

COOKEVILLE – Tennessee Tech University has been awarded a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s National Research Traineeship Program for the project “Engendering the Spirit of Gadugi at the Food-Energy-Water Nexus.” The program, once started, will transform the way graduate education works at Tech across several colleges and programs. 

The vision is to enable graduate students to identify a problem at the intersection of food, energy and water areas that they want to help solve in partnership with rural, Appalachian or Cherokee communities. In addition to the opportunity to partner with those communities and learn from their expertise while fulfilling their degree requirements, students will also be learning skills associated with problem identification and problem solving while working with complex, societal challenges. 

“The problem will be selected by the student researchers guided by their team of mentors directly in collaboration with the community that they will be immersed with,” said Pedro Arce, professor of chemical engineering at Tech and a Tech Distinguished Faculty Fellow, who is heading up the interdisciplinary program. 

Arce added, “We are not prescribing to the student the project that we want solved. In collaboration with their mentors and partners, the student will be finding the type of problem they want to work on that will address complex challenges relevant to their immersive community.”

Typically, traditional teaching and mentoring in master’s level and doctoral work results in the assigning of research projects to students to help them understand complex issues; however, this can limit student and community voices in the process, according to Arce.

“I think that’s a poor way of training the student,” Arce said. “You are really only training the problem-solving ability, but training problem identification – you are doing nothing for that. Here, we will do both.”

One example of the type of project a student may work on is water purification, where they could study clean water access for a community, see what kind of contaminants are in the water, and work with mentors and partners on an economically feasible way to bring communities cleaner water. No matter what the project is, students will also be getting the benefit of multi-cultural learning as they work with their mentors and partners in these communities and are exposed to different perspectives on complex social challenges while gaining technical expertise.

In fact, the name of the program centers on the word Gadugi from the Cherokee language that means just that: working together, usually as a community. The Cherokee tribal communities partnering with Tech on this program gave their permission for this new venture to use the word in its title.

“In traditional usage, it (Gadugi) was most often applied to the community corn fields worked in and equally shared in by the whole village,” said Troy Smith, Tech associate professor of history and director of the Upper Cumberland Humanities and Social Sciences Institute. “In more recent times Gadugi has been applied to projects such as community care for children, the elderly or infirm, or volunteer community workers supplying labor for important infrastructure projects that benefit all.” 

This program has taken an immense effort to reach this stage, involving much collaboration. In addition to Arce and Smith, the core participants include Andrea Arce-Trigatti, evaluation consultant and research member of the Renaissance Foundry Research Group; Rufaro Chitiyo , assistant professor of human ecology at Tech; Lauren Harding, assistant professor of sociology and political science at Tech; Ada Haynes, professor of sociology and political science and director of the Center for Assessment and Improvement of Learning at Tech; Satish Mahajan, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Center for Energy Systems Research at Tech; J. Robby Sanders, associate professor of chemical engineering and interim chair of the department of chemical engineering at Tech; Jeff Schaeffer, Tech Water Center director; and Nicole Bowman of Bowman Performance Consulting. 

The broad coalition of partners also involved includes Tech’s Rural Reimagined initiative; additional faculty in the departments of chemical engineering (Laura Arias Chavez, Stephanie Jorgensen), civil and environmental engineering (Tania Datta), agriculture (Brian Leckie), the department of biology, and the school of environmental studies (Hayden Mattingly); the College of Graduate Studies; enrollment management; and multicultural affairs, as well as the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, the City of Cookeville’s industrial advisory board and numerous other stakeholders in partnering communities.

The program will have a dedicated manager to facilitate implementation and staff support from the university’s office of research and Tech Center for Energy Systems Research (Anysa Milum). In addition, the program will establish an independent advisory council comprised of an expert in mindfulness and culturally responsive educational strategies (Ashley Akenson, director of graduate studies in Tech’s College of Education), an expert in constructivist pedagogy and evaluation approaches, an expert from the FEW-technical areas with experience in real applications and policy (Joseph Biernacki, professor in Tech’s department of chemical engineering), and one or more members from the partnering communities (e.g., Kaitlyn Salyer, Rutherford County Works director of talent development; Pamela Kingfisher, Shining Waters Consulting;  Candessa Tehee , Cherokee Nation District 2 tribal councilor; and Tom Moss, North Alabama School for Organizers).

This program, as envisioned, is essentially the next step in the continuous improvement and application of the Renaissance Foundry Model – also called the Foundry – of innovation-driven learning, which Arce also leads with his team of scholar-experts. Through their efforts they have helped to advance undergraduate education through the application of the Foundry which students use to learn critical thinking, leadership and team-based skills. Now the new program will bring this model to master’s and Ph.D. students as they continue to learn how to shape their education to meet their own goals.

During the first year of implementation of this grant, the team will confirm partnerships and get things set up and ready for the first students to participate. Once it is up and going, it is estimated that the grant will provide funds for the participation of 12 master’s students, eight Ph.D. students, as well as at least 60 additional graduate student trainees and opportunities for undergraduates and K-12 students.

“For this project, the spirit of Gadugi guides the holistic teaching and learning experiences that students will engage in as they work and learn with various community leaders and partners, including the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Appalachian neighbors and rural collaborators,” Arce-Trigatti said. “Leveraging the Renaissance Foundry Model, the pedagogical foundations of this program iteratively guide students to acquire and transfer new knowledge into new contexts, while integrating food-energy-water technical knowledge into innovative, community-based solutions.”

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.