Uganda: The Benefits of Biogas

Generating enthusiasm for a new kind of technology is key to its long-term success. Rebecca Larson, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering, has already accomplished that goal in Uganda, where students at an elementary school in Lweeza excitedly yell “Biogas! Biogas!” after learning about anaerobic digester systems.

Larson, a UW–Extension biowaste specialist and an expert in agricultural manure management, designs, installs and upgrades small-scale anaerobic digester (AD) systems in developing countries. Her projects are funded by the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison and several other sources. Community education and outreach at schools and other installation sites are an important part of these efforts.

Children get excited by the “magic” in her work, she says. “It’s converting something with such a negative connotation as manure into something positive,” Larson notes. In an AD system, this magic is performed by bacteria that break down manure and other organic waste in the absence of oxygen.

The resulting biogas, a form of energy composed of methane and carbon dioxide, can be used directly for cooking, lighting, or heating a building, or it can fuel an engine generator to produce electricity.

Larson’s collaborators in Uganda include Sarah Stefanos and Aleia McCord, graduate students at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who joined forces with fellow students at Makarere University in Kampala to start a company called Waste 2 Energy Ltd.
Along with another company, Green Heat Uganda, which has built a total of 42 digesters, Waste 2 Energy has helped install four AD systems since 2011.

“Most of these digesters are locally built underground dome systems at schools and orphanages,” Larson explains. Lweeza’s elementary school is a perfect example.

The AD systems use food waste, human waste from pit latrines and everything in between. The biogas generated by the digester is run through a pipeline to a kitchen stove where the children’s meals are prepared. Compared to traditional charcoal cooking, the AD systems greatly reduce the school’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Larson and her team are now focusing on enhancing the efficiency and environmental benefits of these systems. Their goals are to improve the digester’s management of human waste, reduce its water needs, increase the amount of energy it produces and generate cheap fertilizer to boost food crop yields.

“Our overall goal is to create a closed-loop and low-cost sustainability package that addresses multiple local user needs,” Larson says.

The beauty of the project is that all these needs can be met by simply adding two new components to the existing systems: heating elements and a solid-liquid separator.

To help visualize the impact of the fertilizer, Larson set up demonstration plots that compare crop yields with and without it. Down the road, a generator could be added to the system to provide electricity in a country where only 9 percent of the population currently has access.

As a next step, Larson hopes to replicate the project’s success in Bolivia. She is finalizing local design plans with Horacio Aguirre-Villegas, her postdoctoral fellow in biological systems engineering, and their collaborators at the Universidad Amazonica de Pando in Cobija.

Tom Jenny

(Earned his first Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 1997)

Like many cheesemakers of his father’s generation, Tom Jenny and his family grew up just upstairs from their cheese factory in rural Wisconsin. However, it wasn’t until Jenny returned home from the U.S. Navy in 1973 that he decided to pursue a career in the trade. At the time his father and uncle owned Platteville Dairy and were able to offer Jenny the opportunity to develop his craft. After 26 years there, Jenny went on to manage the Carr Valley Wisconsin Pride plant under Sid Cook. Jenny’s day-to-day responsibilities include production, packaging and shipping the plant’s products. Jenny has Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certifications in Swiss, fontina and Gouda—obvious choices for Jenny, who had been producing these cheeses for more than a decade. Jenny is enrolled in the program again with the goal of obtaining two more certifications. In addition to his role as manager at Carr Valley, Jenny is training several cheesemakers—and he looks forward to seeing how their careers develop.

Gerard Knaus

(Earned his Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 2012)

Weyauwega Star Dairy has been owned and operated by Gerard Knaus’ family for more than 30 years. Knaus is the first cheesemaker there to become a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, with certifications in feta and parmesan. Knaus was introduced to the craft at 14, when his father first brought him to the plant and he had the opportunity to work hands-on alongside a cheesemaker. “I knew then that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Knaus says. Knaus is again enrolled in the Master Cheesemaker program, this time aiming for certification in brick and Colby. Afterward, he plans to become certified in mozzarella and cheddar as well. “When you start this program, you quickly realize that despite the fact that you’ve been making cheese all your life, there’s a lot you don’t know,” Knaus says.

Pam Hodgson

(Earned her Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 2013)

At the Sartori cheese company, based in Plymouth, Wisconsin, Pam Hodgson is responsible for developing new cheeses to meet desirable specifications, researching cheesemaking methods, and evaluating and addressing issues of quality. After graduating from CALS with a degree in dairy science, Hodgson began her career as a dairy nutritionist for a large cooperative. After starting a family, Hodgson wanted a job that required less travel, which led her to the science and art of cheesemaking. Her passion is deeply rooted in her family’s connection to the craft, she says. Her grandfather, a CALS Dairy School graduate, was an award-winning cheesemaker—and now her daughter is pursuing a career in cheesemaking as well. “Our cheesemaking genes must be pretty strong,” says Hodgson, who has Master Cheesemaker certifications in fontina and open hard cheeses.

Kerry Henning

(Earned his Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 1999)

The day often begins at 3:20 a.m. for Kerry Henning, whose responsibilities at Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese, based in Kiel, Wisconsin, include preparing ingredients for cheesemaking, packaging cheese and giving facility tours to visitors from around the world. Henning entered his undergraduate studies intending to pursue a degree in accounting until he met his wife and reevaluated his plans for the future. Eventually following in his family’s footsteps, Henning became a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certified in cheddar, Colby, and Monterey Jack—the cheeses his parents made at the family plant. His favorite part of his work, he says, is the satisfaction and accomplishment he feels when people in the food industry express their appreciation for his product and share how they’ve used it. Looking back on his Master Cheesemaker training, Henning fondly remembers the camaraderie among students and the opportunity to discuss their trade. “Some of your best education comes from the hotel lobby bar once class is over,” Henning says.

Alan Gruenke

(Earned his Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 2013)

Third-generation owner Alan Greunke always arrives at Maple Grove Cheese in Milladore, Wisconsin, well before dawn to begin preparations for the cheese to be made that day. The Greunke family has a long history with CALS—Greunke’s grandfather graduated from the Dairy School in 1912, Greunke notes while admiring his grandfather’s class picture. Having attained his cheesemaking license at age 13, Greunke had compiled more than 40 years of experience by the time he completed his Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program in 2013. Greunke is certified in cheddar and Monterey Jack, two of the most popular cheeses at Maple Grove—and having the Master’s Mark on their products has led to a significant increase in business, he says. His favorite part of the program was the cheese technology short course, which offered him and a broad spectrum of his peers a chance to share their knowledge and experiences.

Pat Doell

(Earned his Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 2014)

At Agropur, a Canada-based dairy cooperative, Pat Doell is responsible for cheese production, packaging and shipping at the company’s plant in Luxemburg, Wisconsin. Doell grew up in a cheesemaking family and in high school spent weekends and summers working in the family plant. Today Doell is among the newest of the Master Cheesemaker graduates, receiving certification just last year in provolone and mozzarella. Doell’s certification is held in high regard by Agropur, which takes pride in displaying the Master’s Mark®—an exclusive benefit for Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers—on its products. The three-year Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers program required Doell to attend classes, submit samples for review, have plant inspections and complete a rigorous final exam, training that was “challenging but invaluable,” says Doell.

Sid Cook

(Earned his first Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certificate in 2002)

Having won 569 national and international awards within the past 14 years, Sid Cook’s Carr Valley Cheese just might rank first in the world for number of awards. Cook’s passion for cheese began at a very young age. He remembers opening the kitchen door in his childhood home to find vats of cheese—no surprise given that his family owned Irish Valley cheese. By age 16 he had become a licensed cheesemaker, and just seven years later he and his brother purchased Irish Valley. In 1986 Cook became sole owner of Irish Valley and bought Carr Valley in LaValle, Wisconsin. A two-time graduate of the Master Cheesemaker program, Cook is certified in four cheeses. The education he gained in the program went “beyond the practical,” Cook says; it gave him the chance to work alongside and learn from cheesemakers from around the world. And that training no doubt contributed to the huge success of Carr Valley, which today produces more than 95 cheeses, purchases milk from nearly 100 farm families, and encompasses four factories and eight stores. Cook’s been producing cheese for some 50 years, but when he’s asked if he will retire, he simply says, “I’m not done yet.”

Plant Prowess

It may look jury-rigged, but it’s cutting-edge science.

In a back room in the university’s Seeds Building, researchers scan ears of corn—three at a time—on a flatbed scanner, the kind you’d find at any office supply store. After running the ears through a shelling machine, they image the de-kerneled cobs on a second scanner.

The resulting image files—up to 40 gigabytes’ worth per day—are then run through a custom-made software program that outputs an array of yield-related data for each individual ear. Ultimately, the scientists hope to link this type of information—along with lots of other descriptive data about how the plants grow and what they look like—back to the genes that govern those physical traits. It’s part of a massive national effort to deliver on the promise of the corn genome, which was sequenced back in 2009, and help speed the plant breeding process for this widely grown crop.

“When it comes to crop improvement, the genotype is more or less useless without attaching it to performance,” explains Bill Tracy, professor and chair of the Department of Agronomy. “The big thing is phenotyping—getting an accurate and useful description of the organism—and connecting that information back to specific genes. It’s the biggest thing in our area of plant sciences right now, and we as a college are playing a big role in that.”

No surprise there. Since the college’s founding, plant scientists at CALS have been tackling some of the biggest issues of their day. Established in 1889 to help fulfill the University of Wisconsin’s land grant mission, the college focused on supporting the state’s fledgling farmers, helping them figure out how to grow crops and make a living at it. At the same time, this practical assistance almost always included a more basic research component, as researchers sought to understand the underlying biology, chemistry and physics of agricultural problems.

That approach continues to this day, with CALS plant scientists working to address the ever-evolving agricultural and natural resource challenges facing the state, the nation and the world. Taken together, this group constitutes a research powerhouse, with members based in almost half of the college’s departments, including agronomy, bacteriology, biochemistry, entomology, forest and wildlife ecology, genetics, horticulture, plant pathology and soil science.

“One of our big strengths here is that we span the complete breadth of the plant sciences,” notes Rick Lindroth, associate dean for research at CALS and a professor of entomology. “We have expertise across the full spectrum—from laboratory to field, from molecules to ecosystems.”

This puts the college in the exciting position of tackling some of the most complex and important issues of our time, including those on the applied science front, the basic science front—and at the exciting new interface where the two approaches are starting to intersect, such as the corn phenotyping project.

“The tools of genomics, informatics and computation are creating unprecedented opportunities to investigate and improve plants for humans, livestock and the natural world,” says Lindroth. “With our historic strength in both basic and applied plant sciences, the college is well positioned to help lead the nation at this scientific frontier.”

It’s hard to imagine what Wisconsin’s agricultural economy would look like today without the assistance of CALS’ applied plant scientists.

The college’s early horticulturalists helped the first generation of cranberry growers turn a wild bog berry into an economic crop. Pioneering plant pathologists identified devastating diseases in cabbage and potato, and then developed new disease-resistant varieties. CALS agronomists led the development of the key forage crops—including alfalfa and corn—that feed our state’s dairy cows.

Fast-forward to 2015: Wisconsin is the top producer of cranberries, is third in the nation in potatoes and has become America’s Dairyland. And CALS continues to serve the state’s agricultural industry.

The college’s robust program covers a wide variety of crops and cropping systems, with researchers addressing issues of disease, insect and weed control; water and soil conservation; nutrient management; crop rotation and more. The college is also home to a dozen public plant-breeding programs—for sweet corn, beet, carrot, onion, potato, cranberry, cucumber, melon, bean, pepper, squash, field corn and oats—that have produced scores of valuable new varieties over the years, including a number of “home runs” such as the Snowden potato, a popular potato chip variety, and the HyRed cranberry, a fast-ripening berry designed for Wisconsin’s short growing season.

While CALS plant scientists do this work, they also train the next generation of researchers—lots of them. The college’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics Program, with faculty from nine departments, has trained more graduate students than any other such program in the nation. Just this past fall, the Biology Major launched a new plant biology option in response to growing interest among undergraduates.

“If you go to any major seed company, you’ll find people in the very top leadership positions who were students here in our plant-breeding program,” says Irwin Goldman PhD’91, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture.

Among the college’s longstanding partnerships, CALS’ relationship with the state’s potato growers is particularly strong, with generations of potato growers working alongside generations of CALS scientists. The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), the commodity group that supports the industry, spends more than $300,000 on CALS-led research each year, and the group helped fund the professorship that brought Jeff Endelman, a national leader in statistical genetics, to campus in 2013 to lead the university’s potato-breeding program.

“Research is the watchword of the Wisconsin potato and vegetable industry,” says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the WPVGA. “We enjoy a strong partnership with CALS researchers in an ongoing effort to solve problems and improve crops, all with the goal of enhancing the economic vitality of Wisconsin farmers.”

Over the decades, multi-disciplinary teams of CALS experts have coalesced around certain crops, including potato, pooling their expertise.

“Once you get this kind of core group working, it allows you to do really high-impact work,” notes Patty McManus, professor and chair of the Department of Plant Pathology and a UW–Extension fruit crops specialist.

CALS’ prowess in potato, for instance, helped the college land a five-year, $7.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help reduce levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, in French fries and potato chips. The multistate project involves plant breeders developing new lines of potato that contain lower amounts of reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and asparagine, which combine to form acrylamide when potatoes are fried. More than a handful of conventionally bred, low-acrylamide potato varieties are expected to be ready for commercial evaluations within a couple of growing seasons.

“It’s a national effort,” says project manager Paul Bethke, associate professor of horticulture and USDA-ARS plant physiologist. “And by its nature, there’s a lot of cross-talk between the scientists and the industry.”

Working with industry and other partners, CALS researchers are responding to other emerging trends, including the growing interest in sustainable agricultural systems.

“Maybe 50 years ago, people focused solely on yield, but that’s not the way people think anymore. Our crop production people cannot just think about crop production, they have to think about agroecology, about sustainability,” notes Tracy. “Every faculty member doing production research in the agronomy department, I believe, has done some kind of organic research at one time or another.”

Embracing this new focus, over the past two years CALS has hired two new assistant professors—Erin Silva, in plant pathology, who has responsibilities in organic agriculture, and Julie Dawson, in horticulture, who specializes in urban and regional food systems.

“We still have strong partnerships with the commodity groups, the cranberries, the potatoes, but we’ve also started serving a new clientele—the people in urban agriculture and organics that weren’t on the scene for us 30 years ago,” says Goldman. “So we have a lot of longtime partners, and then some new ones, too.”

Working alongside their applied colleagues, the college’s basic plant scientists have engaged in parallel efforts to reveal fundamental truths about plant biology—truths that often underpin future advances on the applied side of things.

For example, a team led by Aurélie Rakotondrafara, an assistant professor of plant pathology, recently found a genetic element—a stretch of genetic code—in an RNA-based plant virus that has a very useful property. The element, known as an internal ribosome entry site, or IRES, functions like a “landing pad” for the type of cellular machine that turns genes—once they’ve been encoded in RNA—into proteins. (A Biology 101 refresher: DNA—>RNA—>Protein.)

This viral element, when harnessed as a tool of biotechnology, has the power to transform the way scientists do their work, allowing them to bypass a longstanding roadblock faced by plant researchers.

“Under the traditional mechanism of translation, one RNA codes for one protein,” explains Rakotondrafara. “With this IRES, however, we will be able to express several proteins at once from the same RNA.”

Rakotondrafara’s discovery, which won an Innovation Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) this past fall and is in the process of being patented, opens new doors for basic researchers, and it could also be a boon for biotech companies that want to produce biopharmaceuticals, including multicomponent drug cocktails, from plants.

Already, Rakotondrafara is working with Madison-based PhylloTech LLC to see if her new IRES can improve the company’s tobacco plant-based biofarming system.

“The idea is to produce the proteins we need from plants,” says Jennifer Gottwald, a technology officer at WARF. “There hasn’t been a good way to do this before, and Rakotondrafara’s discovery could actually get this over the hump and make it work.”

While Rakotondrafara is a basic scientist whose research happened to yield a powerful application, CALS has a growing number of scientists—including those involved in the corn phenotyping project—who are working at the exciting new interface where basic and applied research overlap. This new space, created through the mind-boggling advances in genomics, informatics and computation made in recent years, is home to an emerging scientific field where genetic information and other forms of “big data” will soon be used to guide in-the-field plant-breeding efforts.

Sequencing the genome of an organism, for instance, “is almost trivial in both cost and difficulty now,” notes agronomy’s Bill Tracy. But a genome—or even a set of 1,000 genomes—is only so helpful.

What plant scientists and farmers want is the ability to link the genetic information inside different corn varieties—that is, the activity of specific genes inside various corn plants—to particular plant traits observed in the greenhouse or the field. The work of chronicling these traits, known as phenotyping, is complex because plants behave differently in different environments—for instance, growing taller in some regions and shorter in others.

“That’s one of the things that the de Leon and Kaeppler labs are now moving their focus to—massive phenotyping. They’ve been doing it for a while, but they’re really ramping up now,” says Tracy, referring to agronomy faculty members Natalia de Leon MS’00 PhD’02 and Shawn Kaeppler.

After receiving a large grant from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in 2007, de Leon and Kaeppler decided to integrate their two research programs. They haven’t looked back. With de Leon’s more applied background in plant breeding and field evaluation, plus quantitative genetics, and with Kaeppler’s more basic corn genetics expertise, the two complement each other well. The duo have had great success securing funding for their various projects from agencies including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.

“A lot of our focus has been on biofuel traits, but we measure other types of economically valuable traits as well, such as yield, drought tolerance, cold tolerance and others,” says Kaeppler. Part of the work involves collaborating with bioinformatics experts to develop advanced imaging technologies to quantify plant traits, projects that can involve assessing hundreds of plants at a time using tools such as lasers, drone-mounted cameras and hyperspectral cameras.

This work requires a lot of space to grow and evaluate plants, including greenhouse space with reliable climate control in which scientists can precisely measure the effects of environmental conditions on plant growth. That space, however, is in short supply on campus.

“A number of our researchers have multimillion-dollar grants that require thousands of plants to be grown, and we don’t always have the capacity for it,” says Goldman.

That’s because the Walnut Street Greenhouses, the main research greenhouses on campus, are already packed to the gills with potato plants, corn plants, cranberries, cucumbers, beans, alfalfa and dozens of other plant types. At any given moment, the facility has around 120 research projects under way, led by 50 or so different faculty members from across campus.

Another bottleneck is that half of the greenhouse space at Walnut Street is old and sorely outdated. The facility’s newer greenhouses, built in 2005, feature automated climate control, with overlapping systems of fans, vents, air conditioners and heaters that help maintain a pre-set temperature. The older houses, constructed of single-pane glass, date back to the early 1960s and present a number of challenges to run and maintain. Some don’t even have air conditioning—the existing electrical system can’t handle it. Temperatures in those houses can spike to more than 100 degrees during the summer.

“Most researchers need to keep their plants under fairly specific and constant conditions,” notes horticultural technician Deena Patterson. “So the new section greenhouse space is in much higher demand, as it provides the reliability that good research requires.”

To help ameliorate the situation, the college is gearing up to demolish the old structures and expand the newer structure, adding five more wings of greenhouse rooms, just slightly north of the current location—out from under the shadow of the cooling tower of the West Campus Co-Generation Facility power plant, which went online in 2005. The project, which will be funded through a combination of state and private money, is one of the university’s top building priorities.

Fortunately, despite the existing limitations, the college’s plant sciences research enterprise continues apace. Kaeppler and de Leon, for example, are involved in an exciting phenotyping project known as Genomes to Fields, which is being championed by corn grower groups around the nation. These same groups helped jump-start an earlier federal effort to sequence the genomes of many important plants, including corn.

“Now they’re pushing for the next step, which is taking that sequence and turning it into products,” says Kaeppler. “They are providing initial funding to try to grow Genomes to Fields into a big, federally funded initiative, similar to the sequencing project.”

It’s a massive undertaking. Over 1,000 different varieties of corn are being grown and evaluated in 22 environments across 13 states and one Canadian province. Scientists from more than a dozen institutions are involved, gathering traditional information about yield, plant height and flowering times, as well as more complex phenotypic information generated through advanced imaging technologies. To this mountain of data, they add each corn plant’s unique genetic sequence.

“You take all of this data and just run millions and billions of associations for all of these different traits and genotypes,” says de Leon, who is a co-principal investigator on the project. “Then you start needing supercomputers.”

Once all of the dots are connected—when scientists understand how each individual gene impacts plant growth under various environmental conditions—the process of plant breeding will enter a new sphere.

“The idea is that instead of having to wait for a corn plant to grow for five months to measure a certain trait out in the field, we can now take DNA from the leaves of little corn seedlings, genotype them and make decisions within a couple of weeks regarding which ones to advance and which to discard,” says de Leon. “The challenge now is how to be able to make those types of predictions across many environments, including some that we have never measured before.”

To get to that point, notes de Leon, a lot more phenotypic information still needs to be collected—including hundreds and perhaps thousands more images of corn ears and cobs taken using flatbed scanners.

“Our enhanced understanding of how all of these traits are genetically controlled under variable environmental conditions allows us to continue to increase the efficiency of plant improvement to help meet the feed, food and fiber needs of the world’s growing population,” she says.

Sidebar:

The Bigger Picture

Crop breeders aren’t the only scientists doing large-scale phenotyping work. Ecologists, too, are increasingly using that approach to identify the genetic factors that impact the lives of plants, as well as shape the effects of plants on their natural surroundings.

“Scientists are starting to look at how particular genes in dominant organisms in an environment—often trees—eventually shape how the ecosystem functions,” says entomology professor Rick Lindroth, who also serves as CALS’ associate dean for research. “Certain key genes are driving many fantastically interesting and important community- and ecosystem-level interactions.”

How can tree genes have such broad impacts? Scientists are discovering that the answer, in many cases, lies in plant chemistry.
“A tree’s chemical composition, which is largely determined by its genes, affects the community of insects that live on it, and also the birds that visit to eat the insects,” explains Lindroth. “Similarly, chemicals in a tree’s leaves affect the quality of the leaf litter on the ground below it, impacting nutrient cycling and nitrogen availability in nearby soils.”

A number of years ago Lindroth’s team embarked on a long-term “genes-to-ecosystems” project (as these kinds of studies are called) involving aspen trees. They scoured the Wisconsin landscape, collecting root samples from 500 different aspens. From each sample, they propagated three or four baby trees, and then in 2010 planted all 1,800 saplings in a so-called “common garden” at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

“The way a common garden works is, you put many genetic strains of a single species in a similar environment. If phenotypic differences are expressed within the group, then the likelihood is that those differences are due to their genetics, not the environment,” explains Lindroth.

Now that the trees have had some time to grow, Lindroth’s team has started gathering data about each tree—information such as bud break, bud set, tree size, leaf shape, leaf chemistry, numbers and types of bugs on the trees, and more.

Lindroth and his partners will soon have access to the genetic sequence of all 500 aspen genetic types. Graduate student Hilary Bultman and postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Riehl will do the advanced statistical analysis involved—number crunching that will reveal which genes underlie the phenotypic differences they see.

In this and in other projects, Lindroth has called upon the expertise of colleagues across campus, developing strategic collaborations as needed. That’s easy to do at UW–Madison, notes Lindroth, where there are world-class plant scientists working across the full spectrum of the natural resources field—from tree physiology to carbon cycling to climate change.

“That’s the beauty of being at a place like Wisconsin,” Lindroth says.

Want to help? The college welcomes your gift toward modernizing the Walnut Street Greenhouses. To donate, please visit: supportuw.org/giveto/WalnutGreenhouse. We thank you for your contribution.
Continue reading

Connecting Our Ways of Knowing

In any other classroom, mention of planting “Three Sisters” might cause confusion. But in Becky Nutt’s science class at Oneida Nation High School, located on a tribal reservation in northern Wisconsin, most students know that the Three Sisters are corn, beans and squash, crops that in Native American tradition are planted together in a single mound.

Guided by Nutt, their questions focus on photosynthesis, the process by which plants like the Three Sisters convert sunlight into the energy they need to grow and produce oxygen. The lesson culminates with each student pretending to be an atom of a particular element in that process— oxygen, carbon or hydrogen—and “form bonds” by holding hands or throwing an arm around a classmate’s shoulders. It’s a fun lesson that resonates, judging by both the enthusiastic participation and the thoughtful entries each student writes afterward in a logbook.

The students know the lesson as part of a “pilot curriculum from UW–Madison,” as Nutt tells them—perhaps the easiest way to explain POSOH (poh-SOH), which is both the Menominee word for “hello” and an acronym for “Place-based Opportunities for Sustainable Outcomes and High Hopes.” The program is being developed in partner- ship with both Oneida and Menominee communities.

But what POSOH really represents is a new way of teaching science. Funded by a $4.7 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011, the program has the mission of helping prepare Native American students for bioenergy and sustainability-related studies and careers. POSOH aims to achieve that by offering science education that is both place-based and culturally relevant, attributes that have been shown to improve learning.

“We’re hoping to help make science relevant to young people,” says CALS biochemistry professor and POSOH project director Rick Amasino. “Bioenergy and sustainability offer an entrée into broader science education.”

For Native American students, sustainability is an obvious fit for science discussion, Amasino notes. The Native American concept of thinking in “seven generations”—how the natural resource management decisions we make today could affect people far into the future—has sustainability at its foundation, and most Native American traditions reflect that value. The Three Sisters, for example, offer a way to discuss not only photosynthesis but also indigenous contributions to our knowledge of agronomy, including how mixed crops support long-term soil health and animal habitat.

An innovative program like POSOH is needed because current teaching methods are not proving effective with Native American students. Native American students score lower in reading and math than their white counter- parts in elementary and high school, and only a low percentage have ACT scores that indicate college readiness, according to “The State of Education for Native Students,” a 2013 report by The Education Trust. Other studies show higher dropout rates and unemployment among Native Americans—and, specifically, that Native Americans are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields as students, teachers and professionals.

Verna Fowler, president of the College of Menominee Nation, sees POSOH as offering a crucial connection. Her tribal community college, along with CESA 8, the state public education authority that includes the Menominee Indian School District, has been a key partner in developing and piloting POSOH. Other leading partners include Michigan State University and, within UW–Madison, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

“POSOH takes you into science in the natural world and helps you relate your concepts and understanding so that you understand science is all around you,” says Fowler. “Sometimes that’s what we miss in our classrooms. A lot of students are afraid of science classes. They don’t realize what a scientific world they’re living in.”

In developing POSOH materials, Amasino serves as the go-to guy for verifying the science. “The main thing I do is work with everyone to keep the science accurate,” he says.

Curriculum development and other POSOH activities are led by CALS researcher and POSOH co-director Hedi Baxter Lauffer, who has a rich background in K–12 science education. In a previous project she worked with California state universities in developing a multiyear math and science education program with diverse ethnic communities in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Alongside her work with POSOH, Lauffer directs the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program, which operates worldwide.

From the start Lauffer saw POSOH as a trailblazing effort. “We wanted to create a model for how a culturally responsive science curriculum can emerge from the community it is serving,” she says. “There’s nothing else like it.”

Lauffer knew her group was on to something during early curriculum design sessions with local educators, Native American community elders and students, particularly when she participated in a talking circle with seventh- and eighth-graders from the Menominee Indian School District. The kids were asked a simple question: “How do you take care of the forest—and how does the forest take care of you?”

“They had all kinds of stories about the plants and animals that live there,” says Lauffer. “They were saying things like, ‘I take my nephew into the forest and teach him to pick up his trash. He needs to know that it’s a beautiful place to play.’ It was clear that their connection to nature was strong—and that’s an opportunity for making science learning relevant and valuable.”

Initial steps for curriculum development included building key institutional partnerships and forming teams for curriculum design that brought in a wide range of Native American voices. Team members include scientists, assessment professionals, and teachers of science, education and Native American culture, some of whom are field-testing the materials.

The group is creating curricula for grades seven through nine. Seventh grade is complete, comprised of a fat lesson book and accompanying DVD with graphics and other enrichment materials. The other grades will be completed by the end of 2015, the project’s final year.

Other POSOH activities include after-school science clubs facilitated by undergraduate interns who also serve as informal mentors. This work is conducted in partnership with the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of Menominee Nation under the direction of Kate Flick BS’06, who studied community and environmental sociology at CALS and now serves as POSOH’s education coordinator.

Thumbing through the seventh- grade lesson book, it is immediately clear that cultural relevance is placed front and center. A typical textbook might pay tribute to cultural relevance with sidebars while the main text carries on with “science as usual.” With POSOH materials, cultural relevance is embedded in the meat of the text.

The seventh-grade curriculum, for example, is called “Netaenawemakanak” —Menominee for “All My Relatives”— and its six units focus on various scientific aspects of the Menominee Forest, such as organisms, microhabitats and ecological interactions. Students learn how such terms as evidence, protocol and conceptual models are used in science and, as a final lesson, how to formulate their own stewardship action plan based on what they’ve learned.

And it’s not just what the students learn, but how they learn it. POSOH incorporates forms of teaching and learning that are rooted in Native American culture, such as:

• Storytelling—Scientific concepts are imparted through stories involving the everyday lives of young Native American protagonists as well as figures from Native American legends and folktales.

• Perspective-taking—Students are invited to look at ecosystems from the viewpoint of animals, plants and other natural resources.

• “Careful noticing”—Students use all their senses when getting to know an environment, paying close attention to what is and is not present. In an exercise in the forest, for example, students are asked not only what they see, smell and hear, but also, “How do the woods make you feel?”

“These are age-old practices in indigenous pedagogy, but they aren’t widely seen as such. They’re so fundamental that I think they’re often overlooked,” says Linda Orie, an enrolled member of the Oneida tribe who taught middle-school science at the Menominee Tribal School. She now works on the POSOH curriculum team.

Orie considers POSOH a huge eye- opener for students. “It’s probably one of the first times they’ve seen anything in science class that has anything to do with Native Americans or Native American contributions to science and forestry,” she says. “Especially for a Menominee, that’s really important because most of them live on the reservation and a lot of their parents are employed through the lumber mill.”

“So they live and breathe the forest, but they don’t often get that instruction in the classroom,” Orie continues. “It was a huge gaping hole in the curriculum when I started teaching at the tribal school.”

By drawing upon indigenous ways of teaching and learning, POSOH helps bridge a gap between how students experience nature and how knowledge about it is imparted in the classroom. POSOH team member Robin Kimmerer, for example, says that as a professor of forest biology and as a Native American, she’s had to work hard to reconcile two distinct perspectives.

“In science we are asked to objectify the world, to view it in a strictly material, intellectual way,” says Kimmerer, who earned her doctorate in botany at UW–Madison and now teaches at the State University of New York. “In indigenous ways of knowing, we’re reminded that we can understand the world intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually—and that we can’t really claim to understand something unless we engage all four elements,” she says. POSOH team member Justin Gauthier, an enrolled Menominee who as a teenager attended a Native American boarding school, has come to think of science as another language for indigenous ways of knowing nature. In science, he says, “They’re using numbers, they’re using experimentation. It’s just different language.”

That recognition helped science feel more approachable to him.

“I used to perceive science as being outside of my experience. It was meant for scientists to do in a lab in a white coat. When I started thinking about how it tied into the ways that I was thinking, I felt that it had always been a part of my life and I had just never given it much credence,” he says.

Gauthier, a returning adult student, is earning his bachelor’s degree in English at UW–Madison and plans to teach in a tribal college after earn- ing an MFA in creative writing. He serves POSOH as a curriculum writer. Gauthier suggested naming the seventh- grade curriculum Netaenawemakanak (“All My Relatives”) because it is often uttered as a kind of one-word prayer when entering and leaving the sweat lodge. To him, among other things, the word expresses Native American regard for nature.

POSOH is not only helping fill a gap in science education. Project intern McKaylee Duquain, a junior majoring in forest science, notes that POSOH is filling a gap in cultural knowledge among young Native Americans as well. As an enrolled Menominee who attended tribal schools, Duquain confesses to not knowing what the Three Sisters were until late in high school—and she learned about it on her own.

“It wasn’t even offered when I was a student,” she says. “I’m not the most traditional person out there—I try to practice the traditional ways, but you can only do so much in this day and age. I feel like having that knowledge incorporated into your everyday learning life in school would definitely cement it in more.”

The program’s most enthusiastic ambassadors are the teach- ers and students who have been using it. So far the POSOH curriculum has been taught in 25 Wisconsin classrooms with the participation of some 135 students. Another 140 students have worked with POSOH materials in other settings, such as outreach programs conducted by undergraduate interns and the project’s high school club, called the Sustainability Leadership Cohort.

“I love that the POSOH curriculum brings science to a local level,” says Dan Albrent, a science teacher at De Pere’s Ashwaubenon High School, where he’s been piloting POSOH materials for the past two years. “Students a lot of times wonder why we are even learning all these complex things in science and just want a reason. POSOH does a nice job of bringing in real-life situations and issues that are literally close to home. And never in the curriculum are students sitting and listening to a lecture. They are actively talking and working with real data and real situations to solve problems.”

To him, POSOH represents the future of science education. “I truly believe this is how science should be taught,” Albrent says. “At the moment there is no better alternative for helping our kids realize the importance of learning science for our communities.”

Becky Nutt, of Oneida Nation High School, is just as convinced. She appreciates the program’s emphasis on reading and writing, which is not a given in science class—but important, she notes, in both communicating science and demonstrating understanding.

“Most important from my view is the integration of Native American culture into the materials,” says Nutt. “If, through these materials, we can foster better relationships between our Native students and their communities and other individuals and their communities, then we are on the right track.”

POSOH team member Linda Orie is taking a break from the classroom while earning her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at UW– Madison—but she plans to return
to teaching in tribal schools and sees POSOH as a life-changing tool to bring with her.

“My career goal is to transform Indian education because it is stuck in this terrible rut,” Orie says. “Working in the tribal school I saw a lot of opportunity for growth. It was heartbreaking to see so much potential and not have colleagues that saw the same. And not seeing as many Native American teachers as there could be or should be in the schools. The kids need the best curriculum and the best teachers, and they’re not getting that right now. I want to be part of the change.”

That Orie, as an Oneida, backs the program so strongly speaks to perhaps the program’s greatest indicator of success—the acceptance it has earned in Native communities.

“We’ve been presenting POSOH to different schools, to different areas, to our boards of education and so on, and they’re very enthused about it— extremely enthused, I must say,” says College of Menominee Nation president Verna Fowler.

That enthusiasm is no accident, but the result of the program being developed within and in partnership with Native communities. Patty Loew, who is a professor of life sciences communication at CALS and an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, just happened to be on hand during a POSOH presentation on the Menominee Reservation and was heartened by what she saw.

“I’ve been in a lot of situations where UW people try to engage with community members and it’s like pulling teeth for reasons that vary, but often come down to a basic mistrust of researchers,” Loew says. In those encounters, she says, “People are either being polite or they’ll have their arms folded and are just quietly listening or maybe hiding their resentment.”

“That was not the case on this day,” Loew says. “People were really engaged, they were discussing, they had ideas, it was emotional. It was clear to me that the community’s handprints were all over this project. They not only were hosting the research, they had shaped it, they were contributing to it, they were using the materials in their classrooms, they had a lot of pride in it. And I was really impressed.”

POSOH team member Justin Gauthier also knew about the mistrust firsthand—and saw it melt away.

“Historically in Indian Country there’s been this sort of stigma toward outside groups coming into the community, studying groups of people, taking data out of that community—and nary shall the two meet again,” Gauthier says. “But I really like and respect the way that the POSOH process is set up because, while the leadership team
is made up of people from within and without that community, the ideas—the voices at the table—are respected and integrated into the process. I feel like when we finish the project the curriculum and the relationships we’ve built are going to remain strong.”

“And that could be the big takeaway for me from this project,” Gauthier says. “Communities have the right to be wary of people coming in and studying them. But when you have a project like this, where the end result is meant to be a gift for that community, then you really see the beauty of cultures blossom and open up.”

That could be the big takeaway for Amasino and Lauffer as well. They and their team conceived of POSOH as an experiment in developing culturally integrated science curricula in a way that could be applied in various settings around the country.

“Our overarching mission is to build a transformational model for place- based collaborations dedicated to preparing all learners, especially those who are underrepresented in science and science education,” says Lauffer. “These community-based processes are what the project will share more broadly as it draws to a close. We plan to pass on lessons from POSOH to many other communities who can then build on our work and continue improving science teaching and learning.”

To learn more about POSOH, visit http://posohproject.org/. You can also watch the following video: http://go.wisc.edu/posohvideo

Chris Barrett PhD’94

Chris Barrett PhD’94 Agricultural and Applied Economics • In January Chris Barrett began a new position as the David J. Nolan Director of Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, whose undergraduate and graduate programs rank in the top five nationwide. Barrett takes on that leading role in educating applied economists at a crucial time for the field, he says, citing global challenges posed by the rapid growth in demand for food, feed, fuel and fiber. As a CALS graduate student Barrett found a collaborative network of scholars and practitioners who have been formative in his success as both a teacher and a scholar. Among Barrett’s experiences as a CALS student, he fondly remembers enjoying Babcock ice cream with his children while watching the UW Marching Band practice.

Rogier van den Brink PhD’90

Rogier van den Brink PhD’90 Agricultural and Applied Economics • As a Washington, D.C.-based lead economist with the World Bank in the department of poverty reduction and economic management, Rogier van den Brink works on economic policy and related concerns with a number of countries in Southeast Asia, his region of interest. Recently he helped establish a multimillion-dollar budget in support of relief operations following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Now a Distinguished Alumni Lecturer with UW-Madison, van den Brink became aware of the “special powers” of agriculture in reducing poverty while a student at CALS, he says, a lesson that his career continues to affirm. When he’s not working, van den Brink pursues music production, an interest he discovered at Amy’s Cafe and Bar in Madison. Sometimes he mixes work and pleasure, most recently when he recorded an album, “Zsa Zsa Exactly,” while in Mongolia. Proceeds from the album will go to Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts.