This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA's rich science and research portfolio.
Imagine a graduate school that combined the faculty expertise of seven universities throughout the United States. Imagine this program focused on animal genetics, using the latest research data to teach students. Best of all, students can attend with the click of a mouse.
It’s not some futuristic university—this is a digital learning center created by faculty at Virginia Tech, and funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Ron Lewis, professor of animal genetics at Virginia Tech, received a grant from NIFA’s Higher Education Challenge Grant Program to launch this on-line graduate-level training in animal breeding and genetics in 2007.
Currently, 32 colleges and universities use “Engaging the New Biology – Graduate Education Online” to help graduate students complete their degree requirements. Courses average 6 to 30 students and, so far, 179 students have taken 634 course credit hours. The program also includes opportunities for live classroom experience to re-enforce concepts taught on-line.
The site features “CyberSheep - A Genetic Simulation Game,” which teaches students to make effective decisions in a livestock breeding program by having them manage their own virtual sheep flock. In April, Lewis’ CyberSheep team received Virginia Tech’s 2013 XCaliber Award for Excellence for their work in contributing to technology-enriched learning.
Dr. Lewis’ work is one example of many projects the Higher Education Challenge Grant Program funds every year. The program helps faculty improve the quality of academic instruction in the agricultural sciences. And Dr. Lewis saw it as a way to address a key need in his field of instruction.
“The study of animal genetics is increasingly multidisciplinary, and with fewer faculty numbers in our discipline, it has become challenging to provide that breadth of material to our students”, said Lewis. “Also, with fewer graduate students in our discipline on individual campuses, we have to stretch our personnel to reach everyone. Now, a student in Virginia can take a class taught by my colleague at University of Nebraska-Lincoln or Colorado State University just by going to a computer and registering.”