Linking Science and Social Issues

Outdoor market

This course is one of the First Year Initiative (FYI) Seminars offered at Beloit College. These courses are full semester, 4 hour courses but are non-disciplinary.

This First Year Initiative Seminar course begins with "Slow Food," asking questions that the Slow Food movement poses about the costs of the globalization of our food supply and the loss of biodiversity. Slow Food works as a theme because of its obvious contrast to "fast food" and the images effectively presented by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation and the recent eponymous film. This course addresses the multiple questions embedded in "why do we eat what we eat?" We focus on nutritional needs, asking not only what are needs are and why, but how do we know what we know. We can investigate our "foodshed" and what foods are available locally and globally, as well as the impact of food production practices on the environment. Finally, we investigate programs to alleviate hunger and "food insecurity" at home and around the world.

What is the Slow Food movement?

Slow Food defines itself as "a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world." (

From its beginnings as a protest to the establishment of McDonald's restaurants in France, Slow Food has broadened its charge to promote awareness of food systems and sustainable agricultural practices and to protect biodiversity. While it is in part a movement of the yuppie, foodie elite, it strives to introduce concerns about the nature of our changing foodways to the public and to our students.

Slow Food USA has chapters from New York to California, but also from Madison, WI and Minneapolis-St. Paul to south Texas. Slow Food's Terre Madre Forum in Italy provides support for threatened indigenous foods and localized crops, from cacao in Ecuador to fish in Kisumu, Kenya and the production of olive oil in Albania. These connections to food treasures of other countries connect to the discussion of international education. A Beloit College alumna works with a collective in Ecuador that has just achieved protected status for their cacao plants and the parents of another are involved in developing olive oil production in Albania. Slow Food hits home.

Students with Farmer in Field

Slow Food connects to questions at the individual level, the community level, the national level, and the global level. When studying the food we eat, it rapidly becomes evident that our food choices are shaped by corporate choices, by advertising, and by government policy, as well as by tradition and by technology.  Slow Food provides a positive and optimistic perspective on a series of very depressing issues, including the loss of biodiversity and the impact of corporate farming on the quality of our food supply and global hunger.

The themes of the Slow Food movement introduce civic projects that link academic learning to local issues. For example, in this class we did a customer survey for the local Farmer's Market, investigated the path of foods served by the campus food service, and studied hunger in our community and the strategies used to ameliorate it. The student response papers sampled in Section 4 provide evidence of the impact of these activities.

From a sociological perspective, this course also provided the opportunity to explore the nature of social movements at a local and global level, examining how change happens in complex societies. Students explored leadership, the role of motivated individuals, and the pace of change. We were lucky that the subject of the documentary, "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," is a Beloit College alumnus who visited campus to share his views.

This course on Slow Food also brought students in touch with the natural world in an authentic way. Students were intimately involved with questions about the nature of evidence, of how data are used, and of how scientific knowledge evolves. It provided a framework for the analysis of the impact of technological innovations on food practices, as well as an investigation of the relationship between the development of adequate food supplies and the biotech changes that reduce biodiversity but improve yield. Slow Food serves as an excellent way to introduce students to scientific ideas and interdisciplinary inquiry, to the interaction of science and policy, and to the basic investigative skills needed for their college success. 

What is the STEM Content Covered and How is it linked to the civic content?

(p. 7 table)