Charles “Chuck” Francis, a professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for 40 years, was honored July 1 at the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture conference, with the NACTA Educator Award. The award honors educators for excellence in post-secondary instruction in agriculture and whose efforts represent the very best in agricultural higher education.
According to his nominator and fellow university professor, Dennis McCallister, Francis has made a focus on agroecosystems — with emphasis on the system — his foundational principal. McCallister said students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, are exposed to and learn much about current plant and soil knowledge at a high intellectual level in other classes, but frequently miss out on how that information applies at a big scale.
“Chuck’s ability to help students see the big picture is invaluable,” McCallister said. “His classroom isn’t limited by walls. The world and all that it offers enhances the learning experience of his students. He recognizes that farmers and the broader community are a rich source of experiences, and so, of education.”
McCallister said Francis’ international perspective is critical. His students are better prepared for agriculture of the future because of his help in getting them to look beyond the familiar.
Francis believes people learn in different ways. “It is essential to tailor our strategies in education to meet the multiple challenges brought by students to our classes and offer a smorgasbord of learning activities that can meet as many needs as possible,” Francis said. “It is important for students to appreciate the essential role of context, the complexity of today’s questions and the need for exposure to multiple points of view to formulate their own world views and interpretations. One size does not fit all.”
As a former master’s and doctoral degree advisee of Francis and now department faculty colleague, Sam Wortman appreciates his commitment to experiential learning and teaching.
“He believes the best way to teach agroecology is to immerse students in real-life experiences, like farm visits; draw on their prior knowledge and experiences, such as a personal farming background; and to place all course concepts within the big issues of the day.
“I was always amazed at how quickly he could prepare a timely, just-in-time lecture. He would often start class by saying, ‘I was reading the paper on the bus this morning’ and then proceed to weave any number of agroecological theories or practices into a discussion of the day’s most pressing news,” Wortman said.
Francis has a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of California, Davis, and master’s and doctoral degrees from Cornell University in plant breeding. His graduate research was in the Philippines and in Colombia, each time with the national maize research programs and involving farmers. He has been director of the International Program for the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems at Nebraska.
Francis’ courses involve participatory and experiential education. Besides his courses at UNL, Francis also teaches in a Midwest consortium with Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.