The MASTERS project led by Catherine Simpson, seeks to provide underserved and underrepresented students with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in the agricultural workforce.
In Texas, it's arguable which of the state's natural resources is the most valuable. Some would say oil and gas. Others would vote for the rich and fertile grasslands that help feed and support the beef and cattle industry.
For West Texas, however, the most valuable natural resource is pretty simple – water. Water drives agriculture and is critical to oil and gas exploration. So, ensuring there will be an ample supply of water not only for business and industry but also for individual use, is vital to the region's economic stability.
By 2026, it is predicted there will be a 46% increase in the demand for educated workers specializing in water management and agriculture. Yet, fewer college students are specializing in these areas, especially in West Texas, where the workforce holds fewer bachelor's degrees or higher than in other areas of the state. But through a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a Texas Tech University researcher is hoping to change that.
Catherine Simpson, an assistant professor of sustainable and urban horticulture in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, part of the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, is the project director for a group of researchers who are part of a program called MASTERS – Mentoring Agriculture Students through Training, Experiential learning and Research Skills. The MASTERS program aims to provide underrepresented and underserved students with financial support, mentoring, training, internships and professional-development opportunities to increase the number of skilled employees in the agricultural workforce.
The program is backed by a $272,999 grant from the USDA, and Texas Tech is partnering with the USDA Agricultural Research Services (ARS) Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Arizona. Together, they will provide students hands-on training, access to technical and analytical equipment and guidance from senior scientists at the ARS.
"We hope this opportunity will be a model for future dual-perspective, mentor-based graduate and undergraduate research programs that will offer students both workforce and soft skills that will make them ready for future agricultural careers," Simpson said.
For graduate students in the program, the peer-mentoring concept will not only provide experiential learning opportunities but also allow them to gain valuable experience through teaching and mentoring undergraduate interns. This mentoring and guidance also are expected to increase retention, scientific outputs, student confidence and leadership skills.
According to Simpson, the overall goal of the program is to train and educate underrepresented and first-generation graduate and undergraduate students in the field of agriculture, with a focus on horticultural crops and water challenges.
The partnership between Texas Tech and ARS will educate and train graduate and undergraduate students through internship experiences and research, develop a mentoring system that involves both academic and government scientists, and broaden student perspectives, educational experiences and professional-development opportunities.