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USDA Education Grant Leads to International Possibilities

Media Contact: Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188

By Jill Lee
July 13, 2010

Montana State University (MSU) junior Ashley Williams wasn’t sure about her career passion in 2004, only that she wanted to use her geography degree to work internationally and to make a difference. All that came into focus after a chance encounter with entomology professor Florence Dunkel, a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant and a trip to Sanambele, Mali.  Williams discovered her future in that small farming village of 1,000 people—she found herself as an agricultural researcher. 

“Agriculture? I never even considered it. Now I work as a Forest Service hydrologist and collaborate with farmers on stream restoration projects to protect the environment,” Williams said.

USDA’s Higher Education Challenge Grant, administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), was established in 1990 so professors like Florence Dunkel could explore new teaching methods that accommodate diverse student learning abilities. Professors can also use funding to enhance their own teaching or develop a new curriculum and partner with other schools to build capacity.

Grant applicants may request up to $150,000 for a single school. A consortium of three schools may receive as much as $300,000 per project. Applications are awarded annually on a competitive basis. Higher Education Challenge Grants information is available on NIFA’s Web site at

Giving students experiential learning, as Dunkel did, is an important emphasis of the Challenge Grant Program. Ultimately, the program seeks to foster a skilled professional workforce in agricultural research by bringing more qualified students into agriculture degree areas. 

“The Challenge Grant unbound my students from the narrow definitions of agricultural education,” Dunkel said. “Instead of listening to me lecture, they developed a holistic integrated pest management (IPM) plan working with the Sanambele residents. In fact, the idea to ask the Sanambele villagers about what issue they wanted to focus on came from Ashley.”

“Florence gives you a lot of freedom,” Williams said. “She says, ‘Find a problem you’d like to solve, here’s the literature for your research, here’s the funding to get you there. Now go do it.’ It’s kind of scary. Through her program, however, I developed my interest in science and learned how to conduct research that has carried me into graduate school and a future career in water quality.”

Williams’ first research efforts under Dunkel’s guidance told her that diarrhea, mainly from poor water quality, was a major contributor to childhood death worldwide; she had found her problem to address. But when she got to Sanambele, the community had other ideas about what her mission had to be.

“Ashley linked with the Mali Agricultural Research Organization (IER) so they could hold participatory, gender-based focus groups with local farmers to explore what the people considered their most important concerns,” Dunkel said. “In Sanambele, it was malaria that was the most feared killer of children.”

Ashley credits Sidy Ba, a professor at Mali’s agricultural college, and IER’s Assa Kante with helping her ask the right questions in a culturally sensitive way, and for helping her get permission from village chiefs to conduct her surveys. She is now working with Ba on a project relating to diarrhea and water quality in villages near Mopti, Mali, the results of which they plan to publish.

Ba and Kante both know Dunkel from the time they spent earning their graduate degrees at Montana State University in Bozeman.

“As part of my grant project, I invited several Malian agricultural scientists and an engineer to work on their graduate degrees at Montana State University,” Dunkel said. “I did this to create and train mentors for our undergraduate and graduate students in the Higher Education and Secondary Education Challenge grant programs.”

More than 120 students and faculty have traveled overseas, including Native American students who traveled to Mali from Chief Dull Knife Tribal College, in Lame Deer, Mont., who will be the subject of an upcoming PBS documentary.

Other undergraduate or secondary schools have developed lesson plans and research projects based on information gained by the travelers.

“Anyone can adapt their teaching to this kind of experiential learning,” Dunkel explained. “I would encourage anyone to apply to NIFA for a Higher Education Challenge Grant of their own.”

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit


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