InTeGrate Modules and Courses >The Wicked Problem of Global Food Security > Instructor Stories > Russanne Low
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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The materials are free and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Russanne Low: Using Food Security in Science Systems Environment and Sustainability at University of Nebraska at Lincoln

About this Course

200 level, lower division course serving majors and non-majors. As an ACE course, the course is advertised across the campus and welcomes students from all majors. The course is an introductory course that integrates ethics and systems thinking as a context for understanding sustainability and as an introduction to environmental science.
Length of class sessions frequency per week: 1x week, asynchronous, online

Syllabus:ENVR201 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 176kB Aug24 16)

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

InTeGrate Modules work on-line! This is an example of an InTeGrate module, taught on-line and asynchronously in a large class format. The module was embedded in a team-taught introductory environmental science course offered by UNL's School of Natural Resources. The course emphasizes the importance of personal ethics, social responsibility, and sustainable practices as linkages between the environment and society. This module served as the culminating activity for the course, and students were challenged to apply systems thinking in an exploration of the complex, multiscalar factors that contribute to the wicked problem of global food security in their assigned region.

A key feature of a successful online learning experience is a course design where participants are consistently motivated to interact and share information with each other. At the beginning of this module participants were assigned to one of three teams, each focusing on a different region with its own unique food security problems. For each unit, students were asked to compare the observations and outcomes of their investigations with that of teams examining other regions, so they needed to rely on each other's work to craft their weekly reflections. Because the participants knew that each activity in the module potentially could be integrated into their final project, they were highly motivated throughout the unit.

"The Story of My Chocolate Bar" launched the multidisciplinary unit with a serious fun factor! The very first experiences with using ArcGIS Online can often be daunting to students, but the Chocolate Bar activity lowered the anxiety level and it was a huge success, providing an entrée to not only geospatial analysis tools but also to many aspects of the global food system- from sustainable production to fair trade, to the use of slaves in producing luxury goods to the decision making processes that cause agriculturists to produce cash crops for export in lieu of food crops that would be consumed locally. By identifying the social context of chocolate production beforehand, it was relatively easy for participants to cognitively link Earth system science and its relevance to social issues throughout the course. This activity set the stage for the whole module!

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrateMaterials

The module was adapted for use in an asynchronous on-line course and modified in several ways to accommodate the on-line, asynchronous modality of delivery. To keep the module structure parallel to the rest of the course, two units were bundled to comprise a week's assignments. The final module included 3 weeks of classwork, one week devoted to research and project development, followed by peer review, and an additional 4 days (during exam week) for incorporating feedback into the final product. Students conducted the group work in a variety of ways, including Skype sessions and face to face meetings. The gallery walks were interpreted in the online environment as an assignment with prompts to review and comment on the presentations posted on the class space by other groups. The adoption of this module to an online modality proved very successful. The asynchronous format of the course does change the timing of work submissions, and I found it critical to build in an extra week so students had sufficient time to accommodate each other's work schedules and still meet and work on the final project. I was able to add an additional week at the end of the term (exam week) so that final projects could be reviewed by others and revised prior to submission for grading. I did not collect the pre course quizzes because the dynamic and logistics for on-line courses are different, but once again, used them as prompts for discussions. Post course reflections were uploaded to the discussion board.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

The course consisted of two introductory modules, followed by The Wicked Problem of Global Food Security, a 4 week-long guided final project for the course.

The First module provided an introduction to the Earth system and addressed the learning goals below:
  • Describe the impact humans have on their environment from a local to global scale.
  • Collaboratively identify environmental challenges problems/questions/issues through data collection and analysis as a member of a team.
  • Describe the basic characteristics of the Earth's four spheres.
  • Describe environmental challenges in the context of the four spheres of the Earth System including human influences on them.
  • Apply a systems approach to describe the relationships between spheres using appropriate use of the terms inputs, outputs, and feedbacks.
The second module featured the concept of sustainability, and participants examined their role as consumers of energy and producer of CO2:
  • Explain the concept of sustainability as a systems-based principle that can be used to link the environmental, economic, and human dimensions of environmental challenges.
  • Describe ecological footprints and lifecycle analysis as tools for discussing sustainability issues.
  • Evaluate our individual roles, as citizens, and the role of countries and governments in sustainability using ecological footprints and life cycle analysis.
  • Formulate your environmental ethic.

The third module, The Wicked Problem of Global Food Security built on this basis by providing a context for learners to apply their understanding of the Earth system to a societal problem, to consider sustainability features in the production of different food products and determine how both Earth system and sociopolitical and economic systems converge to create food insecurity issues on a global scale.


The assessments used in this module included the creation of map products using ArcGIS Online, and short reflections resulting from "nano" research assignments.
All assignments, except for the final assessment, were graded pass-fail. Students were still motivated to complete the activities at a high level of rigor because they knew that the work they were completing could be repurposed in the final project, for which they would obtain a letter grade.

The final project for each team was power point slide presentation identifying a food security problem and proposed solutions which include consideration of Earth system interactions for their assigned region. The group projects were uploaded to the discussion board week 4, and each student was required to review one case study by another team for Nebraska, NYC and the Caribbean. The group projects were evaluated within 24 hours of posting using the rubric, and the feedback was provided to the teams. Teams had the opportunity to resubmit for additional points within 5 days.


There were several goals I hoped to accomplish through this module. First, participants addressed one of the UN Millennial challenges and were given the opportunity to learn about Earth system thinking and then apply the systems concept to exploration of a societal issue, global food security. Second, because the class serves lower divisions students with limited to no research experience, I wanted to model a process of developing a research project step wise over the course of a month. Third, I wanted to expose these students to geospatial technologies and ArcGIS Online, so they would experience the power of the tool and also the power of conducting an original analysis of data when doing research. Finally, I wanted the module to connect Earth system concepts with a socially relevant issue, i.e. global food security.

All these goals were achieved by the participants of the pilot. The importance of Earth system science to the societal issue of global food security was obvious to all the students by the end of the course. Many commented that they were excited to see how helpful user-friendly ArcGIS Online is and that they planned to take a future GIS course because they saw how they could employ these new skills in coursework in their home departments.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »