A Course in Landing Your Dream Job, From Assistant Professor Jennifer Richards

UT Assistant Professor Jennifer Richards builds educational curricula for a living, and in the process, she’s also built her dream job.

Jennifer holds a split appointment as an assistant professor in UT’s Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications (ALEC) department and as the curriculum specialist for Tennessee’s 4-H program. She began her career as a middle school teacher, teaching 7th and 8th grade language arts and social studies. She had always planned on returning to the K-12 world when she took a break to pursue a PhD in education with an emphasis on research, curricula, and evaluation. But then, Jennifer explains, “I accidentally fell into food science.”

Around the time she was beginning her doctoral studies, most federal funding agencies began requiring outreach components for big research grants. Jennifer was recruited by faculty members in UT’s Department of Food Science to develop these educational outreach components to accompany the university’s grant proposals. She ended up spending more than 10 years with the department and became a researcher focused on food safety concepts in STEM education outreach and teaching undergraduate classes.

Jennifer took on her split appointment with ALEC and 4-H in 2015, despite having no background in 4-H, a challenge she describes as both a blessing and a curse. She spent her first year on the job traveling across Tennessee learning all she could about the 4-H structure, history, and holy grails of the program. Jennifer had the opportunity to essentially rebuild the 4-H curriculum from scratch, asking, “How do we intentionally guide best practices in educational programming, and what does that look like in the field?”

The state 4-H program brings educational programming, hands-on activities, and camps to K-12 students across Tennessee. It’s a part of UT Extension, housed in the UT Institute of Agriculture. Extension agents live and work in each of the state’s 95 counties, facilitating and administering these youth development, family and consumer sciences, and agriculture and natural resources programs in their local communities. However, these Extension agents aren’t subject matter experts in every topic 4-H teaches – that’s where Jennifer comes in. As the curriculum specialist, Jennifer operates as the liaison for Extension agents in the field and the University of Tennessee, developing age- and setting-appropriate curricula that correspond with best practices to meet the specific request of the local Extension agent. Since the scope of 4-H is so broad, Jennifer gets to work on curriculum development for every imaginable topic. “This legitimately is my dream job,” she said.

As an assistant professor, Jennifer teaches curriculum development and research methods to graduate students, many of whom are employed as full-time UT Extension agents.

Jennifer’s relationship with the UTRF dates back to her time with the Food Science department, when UTRF licensed a new hands-on STEM and Common Core curriculum for middle school students. Since then, UTRF has licensed four original educational programs that Jennifer helped develop. “They made the process so easy,” Jennifer said. “I felt secure knowing UTRF had my and the university’s best interests at the forefront throughout the licensing process.”

“Whether it’s new technologies or the development of a new curriculum, UTRF serves to bring UT’s innovations to the public,” said Nghia Chiem, UTRF licensing associate. “We’re proud to play a role in improving children’s education and development in classrooms across the country.”

Jennifer is currently at work creating a new course on youth development. This course will help prepare Extension agents who don’t come from a youth-teaching background to handle the social, mental, and emotional development of kids at various ages and stages. The key to curriculum development, Jennifer explains, is practical application for teachers. The curriculum must tie in to the state standards on which students are tested, as busy teachers often don’t have the time to deviate. It must also be accessible, providing cash-strapped teachers with the resources and tools to teach the materials. But above all, both in the classroom and in 4-H, Jennifer emphasizes, the materials must represent best practices in youth education.