CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The benches, tents and people movers used for the annual University of Illinois Crop Sciences’ Agronomy Day remained in storage, but researchers and students were still able to share their latest work via digital platforms now available online.
As part of the virtual Agronomy Day, Kim Kidwell, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences dean, spoke of the unique format and what’s happening in ACES.
“I know this is a little different than we’ve done in the past, but I’m actually kind of excited about it because we have the opportunity to bring you presentations from more people and actually have access to a broader, wider audience,” Kidwell said.
“As we go forward we’ll definitely do these in person again when it’s safe to do so, but in the moment we get to explore different ways to communicate with people about what we do and why it matters.”
The agricultural industry is a vital part of the state and it’s also a vibrant part of the university’s research portfolio.
“Over the last six months, the researchers have been as dedicated and determined to help solve the grand challenges in agriculture and environmental safety than ever before,” Kidwell said.
“With the pandemic happening there’s been a lot of tension on the food supply, on market development, on economics around food production and agriculture and we’ve been in it every step of the way. We’ve had a lot of people from the outside sector ask us more questions perhaps than they have in the past as we talk about food system resiliency, environmental safety, food origin, fragility of the market system, a lot of interesting things going on and we have a ton of expertise in the College of ACES that works in those areas, as well.
“We’re going to take advantage of the opportunity to highlight and feature our research. We’re going to take advantage of the opportunity to work more with closely with industry to solve some of these problems that you know you had before and maybe new ones that have been revealed throughout the last few months.”
The dean said ACES has a “pretty good size” freshman class enrolled this fall and students have a mixed model of remote learning and in-person classes being taught by a world-class faculty.
“The opportunities that students have to engage and learn from the best of the best is still here and we’re getting very creative about how we create opportunities for students engaged with the material and can have an experience that connects them with people in their cohort and also with their instructor,” Kidwell noted.
When the pandemic hit in the spring, shutting down campus, the dean said there were some good lessons learned. Faculty spent the summer honing their skills and online course development and in-course delivery in a socially distanced space environment.
“Our professors have been amazing in how they’ve leaned into some of the workshops and the creativity they’ve demonstrated in course delivery,” Kidwell said.
New COVID Tests
Student and staff safety is of utmost importance as the campus opened this fall, including a new COVID-19 test on campus.
“Some of our fabulous scientists affiliated with the Carle Illinois College of Medicine developed saliva test. It just takes a minute or so to get the sample and the results will be back within 24 hours. That really created the possibility for us to bring people back to campus. Students will be required to test twice a week. It’ll be convenient for them to do so,” Kidwell said.
A phone app allows students to trace their test results and let them know if they can enter a building safety or the need to isolate and self-quarantine until they receive a negative test.
“That particular tool is a game-changer and I’m proud of our scientists for leaning in and making it happen. I’m proud of the chancellor and the provost and the teams of people they’ve created for helping us figure out how to do return to classroom in a safe way,” Kidwell added.
Masks are required on campus and instructors are wearing shields. Numerous actions have been take to provide social distance in classrooms, along with sanitation provided for students to clean their desks and make sure the space is safe.
Procedures are in place for students needing to self-quarantine in dormitories, including food services to allow students to eat in their rooms.
“We’ve done a lot of things to make it work and what we need know is cooperation from people. The ability for us to stay on campus will completely be determined by our willingness to maintain safety for ourselves and safety for those around us,” Kidwell said.
“We have a fabulous community of people at ACES that care about each other and I’m really confident that we’ll all do our best to create a safe community for ourselves and our students.
The pandemic did not slow down the progress of some larger ACES projects.
The Feed Technology Center is scheduled for completion in October with a grand opening in the spring.
Two new academic programs were launched this fall.
“The metropolitan food and environmental systems program which was approved last spring goes live in the fall and there’s a ton of interest in that program particularly because it has an urban ag bent to it and there’s a lot of interest in urban food systems, especially after some of the issues with the pandemic. We’re going to do a huge marketing campaign for that to bring awareness to it and hopefully draw students to ACES through that new major,” Kidwell said.
“Our animal science and computer science major also launched this fall. We’re big into data analytics and extending those skill sets and expertise to our student body.”