College students around the U.S. have had their semesters abruptly turned upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of North Dakota State University (NDSU) precision ag students have returned to their home farms to complete their semester through online classwork.

This is particularly challenging when studying toward a degree or certificate that requires a considerable amount of hands-on learning, according to Assistant Professor Dr. Xin (Rex) Sun.

“I think people will better appreciate the role of technology in precision farming due to COVID-19,” Sun says. “We need more technology to help those in the business of farming.”

Sun has become more creative in using more technological tools to help teach students online.

“Our classwork hasn’t had any major disruptions, and students are still learning,” Sun reassures. “They are actually doing better than I expected. Students are more cooperative and collaborative. They understand it’s a difficult situation, but they are also working in their schoolwork around helping out on their home farms, finding a balance.”

One example of figuring out a new way for precision students to learn was a lesson on setting up and flying a drone. Sun says he and a family member went to a nearby farm and used a video camera on a tripod to record Sun’s lecture, with Sun walking students through the entire process of setting up and flying the drone. After some video editing, Sun uploaded the video to his students.

“I felt like I’ve become a YouTuber or social media influencer for my students,” he jokes. Students’ feedback on the lesson was positive. Sun says that more than 80% of his students appreciated the video presentation as an alternative to real-time streaming class.

Sun also taught a lesson on how to use artificial intelligence (AI) using just a webcam on a laptop without any coding experience, which he says students also valued.

In addition to teaching, Sun advises several undergraduate precision ag students. Like many universities, NDSU requires all precision students to complete an internship in that career field prior to graduation.

“A few students already have secured job offers in the precision ag industry,” Sun says. “As far as those students have been told, they are still planning to start their jobs this summer. One student has already started his summer internship.”

Since precision agriculture positions would be considered essential in the agriculture industry, it is positive to hear that precision ag companies are still looking to capitalize on up and coming talent.