Passion for Teaching: Purdue’s Bruce Erickson

Editor’s Note: The PrecisionAg Awards of Excellence program — sponsored by the PrecisionAg Institute — honored the class of 2018 winners during the InfoAg Conference in St. Louis, MO, in July. This year’s winners include Bruce Erickson, Purdue University (Extension/Research Award); Nishan Majarian, Agrian (Crop Adviser/Entrepreneur Award); Rodney Wright, Wright Farms, Tyronza, AR (Farmer Award); and Newell Kitchen, University of Missouri (Legacy Award). Here is an up close look at Dr. Bruce Erickson, Purdue University.

Erickson_Bruce
Dr. Bruce Erickson

Bruce Erickson is all in. He loves to teach, and it’s because of the people, he says: In precision agriculture especially, they are optimists, not pessimists (sometimes to their detriment.)

It’s also because there’s a need – and that need keeps growing, thanks to the explosive pace of technology change and innovation.

“Ironically I always feel like I’m behind in my own knowledge of where I should be. My only solace is that many of my colleagues often say the same. That seems to be today’s normal, where you never quite feel you are caught up with it all,” he tells us shortly after his presentation at PrecisionAg® Professional Accelerator in South Dakota on June 27.

Erickson’s commitment to keeping up with this rapidly moving corner of ag from every perspective and educating others to the best of his ability has taken him all over the world: Brazil, India, Colombia, Jordan, and more. Sometimes, you might find him at his office at Purdue University, where he earned his doctorate in remote sensing and has been teaching ever since, currently serving as Agronomy Education Distance and Outreach Director.

“There’s a great demand for people that can put the skills together for precision agriculture. From its start precision agriculture has required a mix of agronomy, economics/farm management, and electronics/engineering. Today’s growth is related to understanding the field environment, quantifying the factors that contribute to yield, and then acting upon that – with the hope that you can reduce inputs, raise productivity, better protect the environment, and reduce the various risks along the way.  We seem to be past the point of disillusionment and in a phase of real growth.”

Today’s breakthroughs are made possible by increased capabilities with sensors, capturing information, and more easily moving it around. The stars have aligned for people to be able to make better sense of the blitz of data, including huge jumps in computer processing speeds, cloud storage, and telematics. Complex stuff – another world from his first encounter with precision in the mid-‘90s out in the field with a GPS device.

“Whether I’ve been in the classroom, whether it’s a field day, whether I’m developing an e-learning module or an extension publication, those are all forms of education. They are all things I enjoy doing. What I like to do is to take complicated information and to package it in such a way that the typical person can understand it. In order to do that you have to put yourself in their shoes, and walk their walk.”

Erickson has done just that in creating, along with several colleagues, one of the most accessible and effective online precision agriculture courses in the world, called Precision Agriculture. Participants have come from 39 U.S. states and from 22 countries. The course received the 2017 Digital Education Excellence in Teaching Award for a noncredit course, the highest award of its kind at Purdue University. In 2015, Dr. Erickson’s Agronomy Essentials course won the same award.

In terms of number of people reached, perhaps his highest impact activity is the biannual CropLife-Purdue dealership survey. The results of this survey are used by almost everyone in the precision agriculture research and business community. The survey has been cited by most of the major farm publications in North America and by academics doing research on technology adoption. The survey is also used by policy makers. For example, the CropLife-Purdue reports co-authored by Erickson have been cited by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), by the European Union Directorate General for Internal Policies, by the Brazilian agricultural research institute EMBRAPA, and by USDA.

James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Erickson’s nominator, calls him “the ultimate in ‘servant leadership.’ He quietly creates opportunities for people to collaborate, without drawing attention to himself.” In addition, “In his face-to-face and on-line courses, as well as in professional interactions, Dr. Erickson emphasizes the stewardship of all resources, including soil, water, environmental and time. He goes beyond platitudes to help his students understand the tools of precision agriculture and how those tools are used to reduce the environmental footprint of crop farming.”

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