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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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Instructor Materials: Overview of the The Wicked Problem of Food Security Module

Module Goal: Students will be able to use systems thinking to evaluate and assess food insecurity in a location by analyzing authentic geospatial and socioeconomic data; be able to identify components, processes, and fluxes of Earth system science and apply these concepts in a location and assess the role the Earth system plays in the food system and contributes to food insecurity; and be able to propose plans to promote food security in a locality that include an understanding of the present day food vulnerability, the interaction of human and natural systems, and impacts of climate change.

Module Summative Assessment: Working in small groups, students will use what they have learned about the interdisciplinary problem of food security to design a community-based action plan for a specific location. This plan will incorporate geospatial, socioeconomic/cultural, and other types of data. The target audience for their product is envisioned to be local community leaders and decision makers. The final product could be in the format of a PowerPoint presentation, poster, or written report. For example, students could work in teams to produce a plan to the governing body in Barbuda, a small island developing state (SID) in the Caribbean. Students will integrate ecosystem services, climate change impacts (e.g., sea level rise and salt water intrusion, increased extreme events) and socioeconomic/cultural data (perceptions of farming, water, and agricultural practices) to lessen the dependency on expensive imported food and water for people living on the island.


The 1996 World Food Summit declared food security to be "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life." Over the next several decades, food security will continue to be one of the the most pressing issues facing our planet. In this three-week module, we take an Earth systems approach to understanding and addressing world food insecurity issues, and explore how social, economic, and political factors impact decision making and can improve or compromise the biogeochemical interactions provided by the Earth system as they pertain to food production. Students will explore the very factors that cause food insecurity (including climate, socio-economic, and physical) through readings, lecture, case studies, and geospatial analysis using ArcGIS Online. The module will culminate with a summative assignment where students will design a community-based action plan utilizing a variety of data sources addressing food insecurity in a location of their choosing.

Unit 1 The Basics of Global Food Systems

This introductory lesson builds the foundation for students to progress through the remaining lessons by defining food security and discussing the major factors contributing to food insecurity today (climate change, population growth, economic downturns, and change in global food consumption/wealth). Tied intimately to global food security is the concept of malnutrition. In this unit, students will engage with the three subcategories of malnutrition, which will provide an important base for understanding the variation of food security across the globe and challenge often held assumptions that food insecurity only comes in the form of extreme hunger. Finally, students will be introduced to the global food system and will use a case study of examining chocolate production to describe its components. As a formative assessment, students will take a five question multiple-choice quiz on the concept of malnutrition and the major causes of global food insecurity.

Unit 2 Systems Thinking to Address Wicked Problems

Armed with an overview of the complexity of issues associated with global food security, this unit begins by contextualizing food security as an example of a wicked problem. Wicked problems are problems that are unsolvable in the traditional sense, and have complex multiscalar causal factors that contribute to the creation of new issues as old ones are addressed. Both global food security and climate change are examples of wicked problems. This unit presents systems thinking as a way to identify complex problems and explore solutions. Using a flipped classroom model, students complete a self-study tutorial which presents system concepts in the context of Earth system science. The slide stack includes two guided activities related to the carbon cycle and soils. A short reading, "Why Systems Thinking?" is included in the tutorial. Authentic assessment of the homework activity is an Earth system diagram connected to one of the issues of global food security from Unit 1 that they will bring to class. After a short class discussion that introduces concepts of sustainability and ecosystem services as related to food production, students are broken into groups and are asked to create their own systems diagram of the global food system, using the organizational systems concepts they examined as homework and the introduction activities of Unit 1. After completing the diagrams, students participate in a gallery walk, and then, armed with new ideas, return to their diagrams to finalize their group diagram. Students can photograph their diagrams or make quick sketches so they have a working copy to include with their notes.

Unit 3 Climate Change and Food Security: The Case of Chocolate

This unit applies a flipped classroom model. Students complete a self-study tutorial. Part 1 provides an overview of how the Earth's latitudinal climate zones are generated by the Earth system, and Part 2 provides a very short introduction to climate change by revisiting the carbon cycle and discussing how human activity has changed the flux rates of carbon from sequestered reservoirs below ground, and enriched the carbon in the atmosphere, contributing to anthropogenic greenhouse gas enrichment and climate warming. The tutorial includes exploration of an interactive activity, two short videos, and a reading assignment. In class, students are divided into 4 groups, and assigned to one of four Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenario projections: A1, A2, B1, or B2. Students are asked to work independently or in pairs to generate a time-aware climate change Web map application using ArcGIS Online. Returning to the theme of cocoa production introduced in Unit 1, students identify climatic conditions conducive for cacao production around the world, especially West Africa where the majority of cacao is grown. Students then use a web application in ArcGIS Online to create a time aware map showing biomes in the Köppen Climate Classification System and determine how projected climate changes will impact the suitable production regions for cacao in West Africa. Using a jigsaw model, students collect into groups of 4, with a representative from each of the IPCC scenarios, and they compare the the impact of the 4 scenarios in specified cocoa production regions. In the last 5 minutes of class, students complete an exit quiz to evaluate understanding, identify misconceptions and areas where additional guidance and instruction may be needed.

Unit 4 Food Security Case Studies

Drawing on datasets for our three case studies (Nebraska, New York City, and Barbuda, West Indies), students examine climate, built and natural land cover, water availability (ground and precipitation), as well as type, availability, and contamination of soils. Students conduct a spatial analysis using online ArcGIS to examine how people practiced agriculture in the past (e.g., freed slaves in Barbuda, native Americans in New York and Nebraska regions), how agriculture is practiced now (e.g., large-scale farming in Nebraska and small-scale urban farming in New York City) and assess whether these practices leverage or diminish ecosystem services. Based on an understanding of past and present agricultural practices and environmental conditions, students apply systems thinking to predict how ecosystem services may be impacted by climate change in the near future (50 years) given the present way of conducting agriculture in these localities. To engage students and draw on their prior knowledge, think, pair, share teaching strategies will be used. As formative assessments, students need to submit 1) a short reflection on the commonalities and differences in the types of ecosystem services and impacts of climate change between two of the three case studies, and 2) how people historically farmed the land compared to today, and what practices may or may not utilize ecosystem services effectively in the two localities chosen.

Unit 5 Access to Food: Spatial Analysis and the Identification of Food Deserts

The class period begins with a discussion of food deserts and a short demonstration of how food deserts can be recognized through spatial analysis, using an online GIS map. Class time is used to create a GIS map for identification of food deserts in the student's case study region. Teams continue to work on their regional plans.

Unit 6 Team Presentations: Regional Case Study Community Action Plans

This class period is devoted to peer presentations of the community-based action plans developed by each team. Using a rubric to organize their presentations, teams will describe the food security issue they identified in their region, identify the data they needed to address their issue, and present their action plan to the class. Presentations should be grouped by region, which will allow learners to identify similarities and differences in food security issues between the case study regions. A rubric (which is distributed in Unit 4) is provided to assist in evaluation and determination if course learning objectives have been attained. Individual learners are asked to apply the rubric and provide a written critique of one of the group projects as a homework assignment, and this document, submitted to the instructor, serves as an authentic assessment of individual understanding of the topic.

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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 »