Students Combat Hunger Globally through STEM Programming in Iowa

By: Kelsey Tyrrell, Director of Youth Leadership Development at the World Food Prize Foundation, and Iowa Governor's STEM Advisory Council Member


When I was a sophomore in high school, I begged my mom to transfer me to our school’s Chemistry B class, a slower paced version of Chemistry A. Students who had below-average GPAs were automatically enrolled in the Chemistry B class but because my GPA was above average, I was placed in Chemistry A. Despite decent grades, I was terrified of formulas and numbers. It was difficult for me to understand the meaning and context in equations. I couldn’t see the real-world applicability.


I’m sure my mom was the most frustrated with my lack of enthusiasm given that her personal interest in math has led her to many leadership roles within the teaching community, the most recent being named President-Elect of the Iowa Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Still, my confidence was low, and I had a hard time picturing myself working in a STEM-related career, so why should chemistry matter to me, anyway?


After a couple of weeks, my mom finally gave in to my persistent requests and allowed me to move to Chemistry B. I was both relieved and excited to focus on classes I was personally passionate about, like sociology and world geography. I was passionate about social justice issues and at that time, I perceived scientific topics as completely separate from my interests in community development and non-profit work. I was still unsure of my career path (as evidenced by multiple major changes in college), but I knew that I wanted to pursue a career with real impact.


It wasn’t until my internship experience at the World Food Prize that I finally realized careers in STEM could be both exciting and life-changing. I learned about Dr. Norman Borlaug, Iowa’s only Nobel-Peace prize winner, who developed a disease-resistant “miracle wheat” that saved over 1 billion lives. I worked with the youth programs staff to help expand the Iowa Youth Institute, a day-long event where high school students get to explore scientific majors and careers that are fighting hunger and poverty around the world.


Six years later, I am incredibly honored to serve as the Director of the Iowa Youth Institute, creating opportunities for students to share their own unique ideas for combatting hunger with real-world experts working in STEM fields. On Monday, April 29, 2019, the World Food Prize will welcome over 300 high school students and their teachers to Iowa State University’s campus and over two-thirds of participants will be young women. Even more significant, over half of the experts in attendance are also women, allowing female participants to not only envision themselves working in a STEM-related field but leading in STEM. They have the opportunity to see how science can save lives and create real impact — the type of opportunity that might have led the younger version of me to view science in a more positive way.


Through this unique partnership with Iowa State University, each student participant is also awarded a $500 scholarship to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Since 2012, Iowa State University has awarded over $250,000 to students participating in World Food Prize programming, ensuring that young leaders have access to a high-quality education, can connect with professional mentors and are prepared to tackle our world’s toughest issues in hunger and poverty. Overall, 92% of our alumni go on to pursue majors in agricultural and STEM fields and 77% choose career paths in those same areas. Through this transformational program, we are harnessing the energy and creativity of young leaders while also benefiting the greater good.


The Iowa Youth Institute is one of many opportunities for Iowan students to engage in STEM career options, critical thinking and creative problem solving. For students like me, programs such as the Iowa Youth Institute or any of the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council premiere programs show students how interdisciplinary STEM education is and how vital STEM is for the future success of our state and the world. I never imagined pursuing a “STEM career,” but I’ve seen first-hand the power of transformative STEM thinking and how it can change the world, in the form of Dr. Norman Borlaug but also in each Iowan student at the Iowa Youth Institute.

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