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Jumpstart workshop yields preliminary proposals

Speaker Andy Burnett addresses Jumpstart participants.

Preliminary proposals for collaborative research focused on building intensive, resilient agroecosystems grew from a recent intensive workshop – the culmination of UNL’s year-long NU FEWS Initiative.

The NU FEWS Jumpstart, held May 9-11 at the Lied Lodge in Nebraska City, brought together 32 faculty representing 16 departments to produce novel, risky ideas that could be developed into research projects competitive for external grants. The workshop featured expert speakers, skilled facilitators and new techniques for generating creative ideas.

The NU FEWS Initiative was launched in response to the new focus area for federal funding, Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems. INFEWS is led by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.


Lisa Pytlik Zillig

The Jumpstart was the third phase of the NU FEWS Initiative, a collaborative effort of the Office of Research and Economic Development, the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Human Sciences, and Engineering. The goal was to involve faculty from every discipline on campus in discussing and generating ideas for INFEWS proposals.

“The Jumpstart and the entire NU FEWS process leading up to it is an experiment for us. I wanted to try a new way of generating ideas and building teams around focused topics,” Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development, said in his workshop welcome. “The products I want to see from this Jumpstart are focused, big ideas for proposals that we can develop further and submit to upcoming INFEWS competitions.”

During the workshop, Paul announced that Jumpstart teams are eligible to compete for one or two awards of up to $100,000 over two years to further develop their “sketch” proposals for submission to NSF, USDA or other agencies. Additional awards of up to $50,000 over two years may be made, depending on the quality of proposals. Principal investigators for the proposals must have attended the Jumpstart, but all faculty can be team members. A separate seed grant program for those unable to attend the Jumpstart will soon be announced.


Kicking off the event with an icebreaker

The Jumpstart kicked off with three speakers providing background on the topic: Ken Cassman, director for the Jumpstart and Robert B. Daugherty Professor of Agronomy emeritus; David Lobell, associate professor in environmental earth system science at Stanford University and a 2013 MacArthur Fellow; and Craig Allen, UNL professor in the School of Natural Resources. They discussed the need to intensify agricultural production while preserving biodiversity, big data as a tool for achieving that aim, and how resilience works in agro-ecosystems.

Four UNL faculty and administrators acted as Jumpstart mentors, interacting with all of the groups, providing disciplinary expertise and guiding them toward scientifically interesting questions. They were Tim Gay, professor of physics; Deb Hamernik, associate dean and associate director, Agricultural Research Division; Dan Hoyt, director, Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Consortium; and Jerry Hudgins, professor and chair, electrical and computer engineering.

An activity led by Andy Burnett from Knowinnovation helped participants get to know the talent and expertise in the room, then the work of defining the problem began. Participants covered a wall with provocative questions on sticky notes that were moved into clusters. Groups began to form around different clusters, generating questions and then presenting their ideas to the group.


Creating research posters

Over the course of two days the process repeated, with groups changing and re-forming and new ideas being added. One new group grew from a Soapbox, a spontaneous two-minute talk that participants could sign up to present.

Sketch proposals presented on the final day included innovations in small-scale waste management; a complex FEWS systems model; a resilience framework for the Platte River Basin; modeling to enhance sustainability and resilience; and innovative systems for farmers to share data.

The earlier phases of the NU FEWS Initiative included NU FEWS + Conversations, featuring six sessions of faculty discussing diverse dimensions of the FEWS nexus. Videos from each of these sessions are available on the NU FEWS website. These conversations set the stage for phase 2, the Feb. 10 Scoping Workshop, where more than 160 faculty generated novel and interesting research questions at the FEWS nexus that could serve as topics for one or more Jumpstarts.

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