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NSF Rural Confluence Program to Pave the Way for Collaboration Between Researchers and Community Members

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

In August 2023, the National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR) funded the NSF Rural Confluence Program, which is a research project that will seek to better understand the demographic, economic, and environmental trends in the communities and facilitate local efforts in workforce development and educational programming. This program is a $6 million, 4-year collaborative effort led by Oklahoma State University in partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Louisiana State University, Northern Oklahoma College, and Western Oklahoma State College. The mission of the NSF Rural Confluence Program is to advance rural climate resilience science and build resilience capacity in rural communities. The program will collaborate with two rural communities per state, in two-year cycles, and will be driven heavily by community-engaged research regarding climate impacts on community resilience and well-being.


The effort led by Dr. Tyson Ochsner, plant and soil sciences professor and co-director of the Rural Renewal Initiative (RRI), includes early-career faculty from OSU including Drs. Audrey King (Agricultural Education, Communications and Leadership, co-director RRI), Andrew VanLeuven (Agricultural Economics) and Saber Brasher (Geography). Also included in OSU’s team are Dr. Shane Robinson, (Agricultural Education, Communications and Leadership and co-director RRI) and Dr. Amy Brown  (Plant and Soil Sciences), project manager. Drs. Ochsner and Brown are two essential parts of the NSF Rural Confluence program. Through their personal connections to rural communities, they have the backgrounds and drive to bring this project to a vast number of rural communities.


Ochsner is a native of Chattanooga, Oklahoma, and earned his B.S. in Environmental Science at Oklahoma State University, and then his M.S. and Ph.D. in Soil Science and Water Resources at Iowa State University. He worked as a soil scientist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in St. Paul, Minnesota. The mission of Ochsner’s soil physics research and teaching program here at OSU is to help people better understand and appreciate the soil, the soil water balance, and the surface energy balance so that people can more wisely manage and conserve the land and water with which humanity has been entrusted. Ochsner’s primary focus is on multi-scale soil moisture monitoring and improved utilization of soil moisture data in agriculture, meteorology, environmental modeling, and drought adaptation. He became the founding co-Director of the Rural Renewal Initiative in 2019.


With all of the research and experience he has gained over time, Ochsner said he is excited to be a part of the process as the principal investigator (PI) to build climate resilience in communities through the NSF Rural Confluence program.


“I love rural people and places,” Ochsner said. “I have seen firsthand how they are being impacted by changing weather patterns. In many cases, they also deal with other challenges like aging infrastructure and long-term population decline.”


But, despite these problems, Ochsner thinks that rural renewal is possible. Ochsner said he believes rural people often know and care about their neighbors and have the capacity to come together to find new ways to make a better future for their community.


“I would love to see our team be a part of that process,” he said.


Brown is a native of Girard, Kansas. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science from Kansas State University, her M.S. in Animal Science and her Ph.D. in Agricultural Education, Leadership and Communication studying disaster resilience in rural communities at Oklahoma State University. Brown became a certified project manager in 2020 and has worked for OSU since 2010 through various positions within the OSU Research Foundation, Division of the Vice President for Research, College of Education and Human Sciences, and Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. She currently serves as the project manager for the NSF Rural Confluence program.


“Growing up, my father was the local agricultural education teacher and my mother was the county extension educator,” Brown said. “Rural community development and involvement was ingrained in me from childhood.”


Through watching the infrastructure and population shifts in rural areas, this has made Brown passionate to help guide this research and find truly applicable, replicable solutions for rural communities.


The NSF Rural Confluence program aims to work within the rural communities to identify the issues and options, use scientific modeling to predict the potential outcomes, reflect with a broader subset of the community through community conversations, and use all outcomes to build capacity through a climate resilience action plan.


“Through this, partnerships will be built with communities, students will be embedded into the communities as Rural Scholars for summer research and service experiences, and community members will connect with researchers to develop plans,” Ochsner and Brown said.


For Ochsner and Brown, they hope to utilize their backgrounds and academic experiences to help bolster the Rural Confluence program.


“I have had some great mentors and teachers in my life,” Ochsner said. “One thing they have all shown me is the importance of valuing people. They have challenged me to put people before projects, and they have taught me the importance of finding the right people to work with.”


These ideas have strongly influenced the NSF Rural Confluence project for Ochsner, and he has been working together with members of the team for several years. Through that time, he and the team have developed strong relationships that he expects will be crucial to the success of the project.


“And, we really enjoy working together!” he said.


For Brown, she remembers her family farm in Kansas being hit by an F4 tornado in 2003.


“The aftermath of that experience led my dissertation to identify the roles and responsibilities for rural communities and agricultural businesses after a natural disaster,” she said. “I was also extremely involved in OSU’s diagnostic laboratory during the COVID-19 pandemic.”


While both of these experiences were more rapid types of devastation, Brown sees climate change is causing damages that are less immediately noticeable, and therefore, not often at the forefront of research in rural areas.


“This project is an opportunity to address the needs created by climate impacts and build plans at the community level to address them while working with a tremendous team of researchers,” she said.


While Ochsner and Brown have found success through the funding of their program in 2023, one of the biggest challenges they faced at first was obtaining the funding needed to launch the project.


“It took us four tries over four years to build the team and design the project and convince the review panel at the National Science Foundation that this project was worthy of support,” Ochsner said. “They receive more proposals than they can fund, and many reviewers are not interested in rural issues, so we were elated when we finally were awarded the funding that would allow us to begin this important work.”


The project has many people across multiple states, which adds complexities to the project management approaches used.


“While I am certified in project management, a great deal of the training and coursework during certification is focused on IT or construction projects, so digging through the project management industry to find tools and ideas for higher education project management in a community-based project has been a learning experience,” Brown said.


Ochsner and Brown have high hopes for the NSF Rural Confluence program, and the team also hopes there will be deep, rich relationships built within the communities that will result in long-term collaboration between the researchers and community members.


“We hope the communities will walk away with scientific, evidence-based research that leads to an action plan customized for their community to deal with climate change and extreme weather,” Ochsner and Brown said.


As of now, the first cycle of community planning and Rural Scholar involvement will occur during spring and summer 2024. Meetings within the community will begin in April 2024 wherein community members will be presented with recent data for their region regarding fire, drought, livestock losses and other indicators of climate impacts. From there, the team will begin recording community concerns, identify areas in which community members are impacted and want further data, and develop goals for building resilience. Shortly thereafter, in late May, scholars will be placed to live in the communities and further research efforts. Ochsner will be leading efforts in measuring and modeling environmental changes, as well as mentoring early-career faculty, while Brown will be providing coordination between each institution and the communities, providing overall grant management, and recording processes and needed modifications for the second cycle of communities.  

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