Addressing grand challenges together

Farm Forum

During the recent South Dakota State Fair, a family member tossed a half full plate of fair food into the trash. Samantha Sleep wasted no time. She pulled out her iPhone, snapped a photo, posted it to her twitter account and tagged it with #honorsgrandchallenges.

Documenting food waste isn’t a hobby for this South Dakota State University nursing student. It’s an assignment.

Sleep, 20, is among 24 honors students enrolled in the Grand Challenges class taught collaboratively by faculty and staff from SDSU Extension, Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College and College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences.

Food waste is among several topics Sleep and her peers study, discuss, Tweet about and debate during the semester-long honors colloquium which addresses topics of hunger, obesity, climate change, sustainable energy and food safety – all grand challenges identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“How, in a nation of plenty, do we still have hunger? There is no simple answer – these are all complex issues. There are many perspectives and conflicting data on all these challenges,” explains Barry Dunn, South Dakota Corn Utilization Council Endowed Dean of the SDSU College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences and SDSU Extension Director. “It’s our job to provoke and challenge students’ paradigms and belief systems. It’s not about students being right or wrong; it’s about these students using information that is as science-based and unbiased as possible to understand the world around them.”

A junior with a hard-earned 3.96 GPA, Sleep says Grand Challenges is unlike any college course she has taken thus far. “This is the most intense class. It has challenged me to look at things from different angles than maybe how I’ve looked at them before. It has already made me step outside my comfort zone, my biases and opinions – to analyze the bigger picture,” says the junior who grew up on a ranch near Spearfish.

Far from your typical class, students are assigned to conduct research on topics by reading contemporary books, journal and news articles; they are encouraged to participate in discussions with experts and researchers who are invited to lead the class each week. In developing the plan for the course, Dunn and his co-instructors utilized education, research and SDSU Extension resources found within the state’s Land Grant University.

Dunn co-teaches the class with Timothy Nichols, Dean of the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College, and Suzanne Stluka, SDSU Extension Food & Families Program Director. The class is partially funded through a USDA Higher Education Challenge grant.

“From my perspective, this class combines the trifecta of the Land Grant University’s mission,” Nichols explains. “Our approach includes engaging instruction, leading edge research and community engagement.”

Nichols adds that student diversity plays an integral role in this class, which is attended by honors students from a number of colleges within the university pursuing degrees in diverse areas; from Nursing, Pharmacy, Engineering and Agriculture Education to Psychology, Sociology, English and Computer Science. “The mix of student backgrounds and perspectives makes for lively discussions and a really exciting learning environment. For example, students with traditional production agriculture backgrounds bring different experiences and ideas to the conversation than their classmates with more urban backgrounds.”

Nichols explained that the course was part of a larger collaborative grand challenges initiative supported by the USDA grant. Other elements include funded undergraduate student research projects and outreach to the youth in the community through Boys and Girls Clubs in Brookings, Flandreau, Yankton and Martin.


Nichols, Dunn and Stluka were very intentional in creating an environment within the classroom where students feel comfortable and driven to discuss these very real challenges.

To invite comments and discussions beyond the university walls, the class is using #honorsgrandchallenges on Twitter. Throughout the semester, students will also conduct service projects within the Brookings community, which give them the opportunity to share the information they have discovered. “These students are the moms, dads, consumers and community leaders of the future,” Stluka explained. “We assign them personal responsibility, community outreach and community education projects with the hope that after this experience they feel equipped to speak up on these topics.”

Join the conversation on Twitter using the #honorsgrandchallenges hashtag.