MSU announces Community Engagement Award honorees

Contact: Allison Matthews

MSU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders implemented nine water wells in Simwatachela, Zambia, providing sources of clean drinking water to approximately 10,000 people in rural communities. (Photo by Beth Wynn)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Mississippi State is recognizing four major outreach projects with inaugural Excellence in Community Engagement Awards.

Each award includes $5,000 to further community engagement within MSU’s trifold mission of teaching, research and service and honors examples of successful engagement by faculty, staff and students. Sponsors include the offices of the Provost and Executive Vice President and Vice President for Research and Economic Development, MSU Extension, and the Center for Community-Engaged Learning.

The awards are granted in four areas – community-engaged service; teaching and learning; research; and scholarship of engagement. Selected from more than 30 nominations from a variety of academic disciplines, the award winners will be honored with a reception during the spring semester. They include:

“Water Borehole Drilling in Simwatachela, Zambia” for community-engaged service. Submitted by junior civil engineering major Jennifer Hoang of Pass Christian, who serves as manager of MSU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. MSU professor and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Dennis Truax facilitated the project along with three staff members and 60 students affiliated with Engineers without Borders. The project spanned five years.

In partnership with Simwatachela Sustainable Agricultural and Arts Program, the project aimed to help the agricultural community improve its unreliable and polluted water supply. Village water was prone to contamination and led to local illnesses. An initial proposal sought to create micro-dams across the community, but after MSU’s first assessment trip to survey available resources, the chapter determined that the most sustainable solution would be to drill borewells instead.

Hoang said participants raised funds for nine borewells and provided water for more than 4,000 residents. Heavy community input was critical to the success and facilitation of project goals. Not only did the effort provide clean water, but it also provided access to better health, increased agriculture, and improved educational opportunities for local children.

Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge” for community-engaged teaching and learning. Submitted by Stephen Meyers, assistant extension/research professor and sweet potato extension specialist, the project was in partnership with the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.

The Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge yielded more than 80 novel ideas for new sweet potato products. (Photo by Megan Bean)

In 2013, Mississippi sweet potato producers requested research and extension efforts to aid in the development of value-added sweet potato-containing products to utilize a surplus of processing-grade sweet potatoes. The Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge was created to meet this need, while simultaneously increasing MSU’s service-learning course offerings, undergraduate research opportunities, and student interest in agriculture and agriculture-based careers, especially among underrepresented demographic groups.

Students visited harvesting and packing operations to better understand the industry and meet sweet potato producers. They pitched product concepts or rough prototypes in a “Shark-Tank” style format. Groups that showed promise received funds to develop their products during a second semester. Student teams with products that had an established or apparent market worked with MSU’s entrepreneurship center to plan a business or licensing strategy.

Over four years, the program was a part of 16 academic courses with a total enrollment of 474 students. Student teams developed more than 80 novel products containing sweet potatoes.

“Bringing Tai Chi to Mississippi’s Aging Population for Healthy Body and Positive Emotion” for community-engaged research. Submitted by Zhujun Pan, assistant professor of kinesiology, this project involved four MSU kinesiology faculty members, along with four graduate students and 15 undergraduates, as well as external faculty members. The group partnered with Trinity Place Retirement Community of Columbus to bring senior adults bi-weekly Tai Chi exercise, while conducting research on how to help Mississippi seniors maintain independence through the mind-body exercise which integrates slow, intentional movements with breathing and cognitive skills.

MSU kinesiology students are pictured with residents of Trinity Place Retirement Community in Columbus who participated in regular Tai Chi exercise and gained benefits including improved balance, manual dexterity and emotional wellbeing. (Photo submitted)

Previous research indicates that Tai Chi can reduce falls—a major cause of injury among the elderly—along with improving cardiovascular function, muscle strength, flexibility and mental health in older adults.

This community-engaged research project involved 32 Trinity residents who participated in Tai Chi exercise and benefited from improved gross motor functions (i.e. balance and locomotion), fine motor function (i.e. manual dexterity, grip and pinch force) and emotional wellbeing.

Pan said the research concludes that this exercise can give older adults higher levels of endurance, manual dexterity and strength. Findings were published in the journal of Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience and presented at the Southeast Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine 2018 conference, among other outlets.

“Getting to Know Magnolia Bayou through Science, Arts, and Culture” for scholarship of engagement. Submitted by Kelsey Johnson, assistant director of the College of Architecture, Art and Design’s Gulf Coast Community Design Studio and was in partnership with the Bay St. Louis Creative Arts Center and Hancock County Boys and Girls Club.

Youth from the Hancock County Unit of the Boys and Girls Club worked with community artists on a 3D tile model of the Magnolia Bayou watershed. The tile model became part of a multi-media art exhibition in Bay St. Louis highlighting watershed dynamics, water quality and quantity, and watershed planning and action. (Photo courtesy of MSU Gulf Coast Community Design Studio)

The Magnolia Bayou Watershed education project examined environmental conditions in and around Magnolia Bayou, an area impacted by rapid development. Initial funding of more than $25,000 came from a 2017 NOAA 21st Century Community Learning Center Watershed STEM Education Partnership Grant. Program goals were threefold: engage more than 75 teens and pre-teens at the Hancock County unit of the Boys and Girls Club in meaningful and multi-disciplinary watershed education; expose them to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), as well as art and design; and increase public awareness of Magnolia Bayou and interest in environmental stewardship by capitalizing on the community’s love of art.

A summer program included children at the Boys and Girls Club learning about stormwater runoff effects and water quality in the bayou through a series of workshops and field experiences. Elements of art and culture were incorporated during the program.

The Boys and Girls Club students conducted water quality testing, observed biological diversity and studied other scientific data. They translated information they learned about the area into a multi-media art exhibition that was open to the public. Johnson said the exhibition and a documentary created about the project continue to serve as powerful community outreach and education tools in the region.

For more on MSU’s community engagement efforts and opportunities, visit the university’s Center for Community-Engaged Learning online at or call 662-325-2370.

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