By Prof. Peter Newton
An Environmental Studies professor designs an undergraduate-level critical thinking course on Sustainable Food Systems to promote engaged student learning.
ENVS 3525-002 Sustainable Food Systems is a mid-level undergraduate course that aims to develop critical thinking skills and environmental problem analysis abilities among Environmental Studies (ENVS) students. It is one of several ENVS 3525 ‘cornerstone’ courses offered each year - these vary with respect to their thematic foci, but all share a core aim of environmental problem analysis, employing an interdisciplinary approach that considers the science, policy, and values dimensions of topical environmental issues. In designing this course, I aimed to create a new, comprehensive undergraduate food systems course that promoted engaged student learning. I wanted to design a course that was built around participatory classroom time, and engaged experiential learning assignments. My hope was that this course would achieve its core aims of developing critical thinking skills and a nuanced understanding of food system sustainability in a manner that was engaging for students.
My course design aimed to create opportunities for engaged student learning. Several elements of the course were specifically designed to achieve this goal, including experiential learning assignments, guest speakers, and a field visit. 1. Experiential learning assignments - these aimed to connect students to food systems in ways that more traditional academic assignments might not. 2. Guest speakers - I invited multiple guests into the classroom, from academia, non-profit organizations, and the private sector. 3. Field visit - I arranged a class visit to Black Cat Farm, just outside Boulder; this demonstrated the realities of a range of issues that we had touched on in class.
The quality of student work was generally very high, and I was pleased with how they responded to the experiential learning assignments. Their submitted work indicated a high degree of engagement, comprehension, and learning. I used an Engaged Student Learning index to collect pre- and post-course data from my students, to study whether the incorporation of experiential learning methods enhanced engaged student learning in this course. The study offers tentative evidence that experiential learning assignments and exposure to expert guest speakers may enhance engaged student learning. Students reported greater engagement with the ENVS 3525-002 Sustainable Food Systems course than other ENVS courses with respect to all fifteen dimensions tested by the Engaged Learning Index.
Overall, I think the course was successful in enhancing engaged student learning around the topic of sustainable food systems. This belief is supported by the evidence presented in the previous sections. In particular, student feedback on the experiential learning assignments was extremely encouraging. However, I intend to continue to refine and improve the course in future iterations of it.