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ASU Graduate College announces Mexico-US binational award to research sustainable agriculture in Sonora, Arizona

Farmer drives tractor in Sonora, Mexico

A farmer drives a tractor in Sonora, Mexico.

December 09, 2020

A new collaborative effort between Arizona State University and the Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora (ITSON) will allow graduate students to participate in a hands-on, cross-cultural program focused on sustainable agriculture in the desert landscapes of North America.

The U.S.-Mexico Training in Environment, Agriculture and Management (TEAM) program aims to teach graduate students about the agricultural practices, environmental assessments and sustainable management tools used by different agricultural regions in a similar climate. 

Specifically, students will examine the agricultural landscapes of the Maricopa and Pinal counties in central Arizona and the Yaqui Valley in southern Sonora, Mexico and conduct a comparative study to assess the capabilities of sustainable farming in each region.

TEAM is the result of a 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Award, the U.S. Department of State’s signature hemispheric-wide initiative to champion the power of education to transform societies, provide opportunity and stimulate economic prosperity. The objective of the grant is to improve student competencies and provide real-world training for the future workforce in sustainable agriculture. 

Interdisciplinary focus on sustainability

TEAM will be composed of students and faculty from a variety of sectors relating to agricultural sustainability, such as food, energy and water. 

Enrico Yepez, a faculty member in the Department of Water and Environmental Sciences at ITSON, will be using his background in ecohydrology to lead students in one of TEAM’s pilot programs.

“In order to study any ecological systems, you first have to understand water systems,” Yepez said. “The Yaqui Valley has the largest river system in the Mexican state of Sonora and is the ‘breadbasket’ of Mexico. Because of the resource challenges facing the area (water, socio-economic, agricultural, etc.), it’s a very important site for ecohydrology research.” 

Yepez is one of four faculty members from ASU and ITSON helping to develop and lead TEAM’s one-year pilot program. It will consist of two field visits (1.5-week duration each) to central Arizona and southern Sonora, and a three-semester virtual class (38-week duration, three academic credits from each institution) spanning the period between the field visits.

Enrique Vivoni, associate dean of graduate initiatives in the Graduate College and ASU’s principal investigator for the program, believes that this interdisciplinary field experience will be most beneficial to the graduate students who take part in TEAM.

“Graduate students from ASU and ITSON will be in a unique position to interact through formal coursework facilitated through technology as well as hands-on, practical field experience garnered through visits to agricultural systems of different types in Arizona and Sonora,” he said. 

Cross-cultural cooperation

TEAM will also provide students the opportunity to directly interact with a diverse set of agricultural producers and stakeholders.  

“By innovating in international education, the U.S.-Mexico TEAM effort will provide faculty, students and community partners with opportunities to view the sustainability of agricultural systems from multiple perspectives,” Vivoni said. “It is through these intercultural exchanges on STEM topics that advances are made.” 

Given the similarity between the regions involved in the TEAM program, Vivoni said he was surprised that binational U.S.-Mexico efforts do not already exist for sharing best practices on agricultural sustainability. 

He hopes this program will address this gap by “establishing a faculty-led student exchange between ASU and ITSON designed for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural training of graduate students through international mobility.”

Maria Menchu Maldonado, a PhD student studying civil and environmental engineering, is enrolled in the TEAM pilot program. She says she is most excited for the international collaboration aspect of the program. 

“The name of the program is significant: TEAM, like teamwork. We can achieve huge things by working as a team,” she said. “There are a lot of people and cultures represented who will be able to exchange a lot of knowledge.”

Comparative exchange

Maldonado said she is also excited for the comparative aspect of the program. 

“In the end we will compare how things work in the U.S. and Mexico,” she said.  “It is the same environment in both places, but things are done in a different way. So, we will know which things work better and why, and that is really exciting.” 

The program is designed to help address issues in social equity and corporate responsibility as they relate to the socio-economic activities within and supported by the local agricultural sectors in which the program will take place. 

As such, the program aims to understand the ways agricultural practices and policies affect local communities and to help serve those communities. 

“As public research universities located along the U.S.-Mexico border, ASU and ITSON both take responsibility for the economic and social well-being of the communities they serve,” Vivoni said. “The U.S.-Mexico TEAM program will bring a research-based learning environment into action for the participants and communities involved.”

For Yepez, the highlight of the program will be comparing management in each city, county and state.

“The cultural exchange is important for the TEAM initiative, but the exposure to real-life socio-environmental issues will be of high value,” he said. 

Maldonado first joined her PhD program in order to learn how to better serve her community in her home country of Guatemala. This is also part of the reason she applied for TEAM.  

“This program will increase the opportunities for both universities to serve and share knowledge,” she said. “Hopefully, I can replicate what I learn in my own country.” 

Written by Emily Carman

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