Iowa State Agricultural Education and Studies Department Helps African Professors Teach Plant Breeding

June 4th, 2019

AMES, Iowa – A project to help professors in Africa train future plant breeders has created a collaborative curriculum for future educators, thanks to a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation three-year grant for $750,000 for the agricultural education and studies department at Iowa State University.

Mike Retallick, chair of the agricultural education and studies department, said the grant was used to help implement a curriculum developed by the agronomy department to train plant breeders in Africa. The grant helped build collaboration between organizations, Iowa State departments and multiple universities in Africa. The funding also was used to create the Professional Development Community (PLC), an international network of skilled teaching professionals.

“Creating a curriculum for the plant breeding faculty wasn’t enough. We had to help them integrate that material into their program and improve their instructional methods, so they could successfully educate the next generation of plant breeders,” Retallick said.

To understand the needs of African instructors, project organizers interviewed faculty, students and partners in Uganda, South Africa and Ghana. Those interviews led to the development of the learning community, which hosted two symposiums and published a newsletter, educational website and self-study guides for instructors.

“After the symposium I found that I was more effective in interacting with students and helping them understand. I learned how to engage students in the classroom with examples and learning aids to help the students understand,” said Patrick Ongom, sorghum breeder research director at the Regional Center for Crop Improvement at Makerere University in Uganda.

The collaborators also produced a video to help promote the work. The nine-minute video features several African professors and faculty from Iowa State and offers a summary about a collaborative approach to learning.

The learning community encouraged professors to network and develop working relationships outside the classroom. Judith Levings, agricultural education and studies research associate, said the learning and teaching skills and tips offered through the department were used effectively to implement the agricultural curriculum.

“It’s not enough to create instructional materials,” Levings said. “This project has helped us become more aware that what you know about that culture and what you know about teaching and learning turn out to be important components of effective instruction.” 

The Professional Learning Community Team was part of the team award presented by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in February. The team – formed to address a critical need to educate the next generation of plant breeders at the master of science level in Africa – was led by Retallick and Walter Suza, an adjunct assistant professor in agronomy.

Along with the PLC team the other portion of the project included curriculum which was developed by Iowa State agronomists. That team was named the Plant Breeding Education in Africa and received a three-year Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant totaling $2.3 million to create curriculum.

Together the two teams have recruited 91 master degree students in plant breeding during the past three years. The ultimate goal of the project is to help improve Africa’s educational infrastructure and increase the number of plant breeders who can develop new cultivars for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Iowa State team members in the PLC project in agricultural education and studies included Retallick, Levings and Greg Miller, a professor in agricultural education and studies. Team members in agronomy include Thomas Lubberstedt, professor; Assibi Mahama, lecturer; Gretchen Anderson, program coordinator; Jessica Barb, adjunct assistant professor; and Shuizhang Fei, a horticulture professor. Former members from agronomy include Andy Rohrback, a systems analyst; Siddique Aboobucker, an assistant scientist; Patrick Golus, a systems analyst; Kendall Lamkey, agronomy department chair and professor; Arti Singh, adjunct assistant professor; William Beavis, professor; Asheesh Singh, associate professor; Laura Merrick, a lecturer; and Lizhi Wang, an associate professor in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering.


Mike Retallick, Agricultural Education and Studies, 515-294-4810,
Judith Levings, Agricultural Education and Studies, 515-294-5872,
Barb McBreen, Agricultural and Life Sciences Communications Service, 515-294-0707,