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Why MIT is Now Offering an Innovation and Technology in Agriculture and Environment Course

April 19, 2017

It’s no secret. There are several major universities across the US that are putting agriculture technology at the forefront of their curriculum. Classes cover everything from using drones to capture crop information, applying variable rate prescriptions to crop fields, and managing water usage.

While many current courses are helping to arm the next generation of tech-savvy farmers and agribusiness professionals, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is taking its students in a slightly different direction.

Starting last year, the prestigious Boston-based university began offering a course for agricultural professionals called “Innovation and Technology in Agriculture and the Environment.”

“The interface between environment, agriculture, food, and water has become increasingly important for us at MIT,” Markus J. Buehler, professor of engineering and instructor for the course, tells AgFunderNews. “We don’t have a history at MIT of doing things in agriculture or related topics, but it is becoming quite exciting, and we have a different angle than universities who have been doing this for a long time.”

MIT has recently hired some faculty to tackle the fundamental questions of how plant diseases spread and we are looking at how to use satellites to provide high-resolution data on moisture and soil.

For its inaugural offering last year, the class was targeted at people in government, working at foundations, and across the globe. Buehler reports hosting class members from across the globe, including some from developed countries where agtech is thriving and others from less developed regions where agtech is less pervasive.

The course begins with an overview of the frontiers in agriculture where big data, more sensing, and increased automation offer the biggest opportunities. It also covers the state of the art and technology before turning to the use of advanced materials like seeds, coatings, or synthetic soils. Throughout the series, examples and technological advancements in other industries like medicine and nanotechnology are used as illustrations and comparisons.

In addition to its fresh perspective on the space, the course’s emphasis on interdisciplinary discussion and collaborative work among the students also make it a unique endeavor.

“In addition to guest lecturers from many different industries, we have students from other governments, company tech scouts, and people who approach it from the policy or environment conservation perspective,” explains Buehler. “And, as part of the experience, we have homework assignments or problem sets to give students in groups.”

The guest speakers include people from government agencies, startups, NIFA administrators, and other key stakeholders. Combined with the collaborative group work among the diverse array of students, everyone walks away having learned a great deal about agtech’s many different dimensions, says Buehler.

“Everybody learns a lot, including the instructors. We learn about what people from other industries care about, what their perspectives may be,” he says. “Networking is a huge component with classmates and faculty.”

Drawing on his observations from the medical field, Buehler places a strong emphasis on the ability to communicate between disciplines. Technological breakthroughs are often the product of putting the right combination of people in the same room.

“You have someone with a chemistry background talking to a medical doctor, or an electrical engineer speaking with a medical practitioner,” he explains. “Neither of them can figure it out alone, and we need people that can understand how to translate between fields.”

Although the course has not invited a farmer to guest lecture yet, he’s hoping to address that in future offerings of the course.

The interdisciplinary exchange has not only cultivated a richer educational experience. It has helped highlight some of agtech’s biggest challenges as well.

“The policy environment is very critical; that’s a big takeaway. The regulatory environment is a big driver in this,” emphasizes Buehler. “We have people who are in government and who have dealt with regulations and how to shift some of the paradigms in which technology alone is not enough to try something new or to make it work at the large scale.”

He has also seen an emphasis on showcasing the startup as a way to make a difference rather than approaching it through more traditional, large companies like Monsanto that would incorporate a new product into an existing portfolio. Unlike many startups in Silicon Valley that focus on social apps for smartphones, Buehler says MIT is focused on what it calls “tough tech.”

“We call ‘tough tech’ things that are more complex in terms of infrastructure. You cannot just write code. You have to build a prototype or plan. It focuses on more long-range problems that need a lot of capital investment and planning,” he explains.

Finally, the consumer acceptance issue was a recurring theme in last year’s class. Without consumer acceptance, the technology may be a non-starter.

As for the future of the agtech space, Buehler forecasts a bigger emphasis on figuring out how to interpret all the data being collected on farms to help with decision making.

He does have some advice for entrepreneurs and innovators hoping to tackle pain points in agriculture.

“The technology needs to be durable. It needs to be built in a way that actually works with the farmer. The ones that work will be the ones that compliment what farmers are already doing today,” he says.

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