InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Future of Food > Section 1: Introduction > Module 1: Introduction
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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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Module 1: Introduction

This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

  • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
  • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
  • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
  • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
  • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

This page first made public: Jan 11, 2018


In the two introductory modules (1.1 and 1.2) of the course we will introduce the main theme of the course: learning about food systems as systems that combine human social systems, with the natural earth system and earth surface processes, to fulfill the food needs of human societies. The objective is to prepare students to tackle learning about subcomponents of these systems (e.g. water resources, soil management, adaptive capacity of food systems to climate change) in an integrated rather than a piecemeal way, which is essential to understanding the current function of food systems as well as proposing future solutions for these systems. During this introductory unit learners will also embark on the course capstone project that asks you to structure your learning about food systems of a particular world region. These introductory modules will also present the systems concept as a general way of thinking that applies especially well to food systems.

Learning Goals


  • Identify connections between human and natural components of food systems.
  • Understand and apply systems thinking principles to food systems.

Learning Objectives

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Construct a concept map representing two food systems.
  • Identify human and natural component parts of food systems.
  • Apply systems thinking strategies in analyzing food systems at an elementary level, including assessing relationships between natural and human system factors that display key functions and characteristics of food systems.
  • Identify sustainable and unsustainable characteristics of food systems.

Context for Use

This two-part module is designed for one week of classroom sessions, either as two classroom sessions or as a blended format with out-of-classroom reading and work followed by a classroom session to introduce and begin completing the summative assessment. We designed this module to introduce our course on regional and global agricultural food production and food systems within a geosciences perspective. We are laying the groundwork for understanding the effect that farming and food production have on biogeochemical and ecosystem processes in the modules that immediately follow, as well as a systems perspective as applied to human nutrition and food security within food systems, and the global challenges of food system sustainability that are tackled later in the course. Because of this introductory aspect of the module, the introduction provided here could also be useful in a course on sustainable agriculture, food and nutrition policy, or international agricultural development. For example, it could help students to understand the environmental and social sustainability concerns and systems perspective underlying the proposals of sustainable agriculture methods, or the framework of sustainability to which food and nutrition or development policy will need to increasingly respond in coming decades.

The module is designed for students in the first two years of undergraduate education or students in other disciplines looking for an introduction to food systems and sustainability. Frameworks such as systems thinking or definitions of sustainability are developed in a very explicit way, and this could be overly basic for upper-level undergraduate students with a background in sustainability science. However the capstone project introduced here and developed throughout the course could have a great deal of flexibility in expanding to meet the needs of an upper-level undergraduate project.

Description and Teaching Materials

This module introduces the course material, which focuses on regional and global agricultural food production and food systems within a geosciences perspective, including a variety of activities:
  • Online reading of the course pages
  • A six-page introductory reading activity on "Environment and Food" that requires students to note main messages of the reading regarding sustainability concerns around food systems and component parts of food systems. This is drawn from the book by Colin Sage of the same name.
  • Concept mapping activities designed in which students develop and apply systems thinking.
  • Online knowledge check activities that challenge learners to apply the readings and conceptual framework of human-natural systems and the concept of the anthropocene.
  • A summative assessment that integrates concept mapping and food system concepts and asks students to identify sustainability concerns in food systems.

The module can be completed by students in a variety of online and classroom options. Students can complete the readings, knowledge checks, and introductory reading activity before class, and then prepare for and begin the summative assessment in-class after addressing questions about the module material. The capstone project should also briefly be introduced during class time if the module will be used within the context of the entire Future of Food Class. A completely online format is also possible, especially if instructors are available on discussion boards, chats, or other formats to address questions and introduce students to the rhythm and style of completing assignments online. In an all-classroom format, each of the two module sections would be used to structure a class, with a reading and concept map discussion around the introductory reading and the anthropocene, and the second classroom session focused on the summative assessment.

All materials for students are available online using the Student Materials link below.

Teaching Notes and Tips

What works best for the module

It is important for instructors to establish the rhythm of whatever format (in-class, blended, 100% online) is being followed in the class and stress that students need to complete reading and other work on time so that they can participate in class or online discussions and not fall behind. Expectations should be made clear and simple guidelines about due dates and readings are preferable to complex ones. Instructors should anticipate questions in class or online about the format and the way that the online portion of the class is run. If there is a classroom component, instructors will need to strike a balance between addressing questions and any confusion arising from the readings and activities, with making sure students begin to complete the summative assessment so that questions about the assessment can be appreciated and resolved. We found it good for students to work in pairs on the summative assessment, and these teams and individual efforts should be closely watched and supported to deal with doubts and establish the rhythm of the assessment work, which will become easier as the course proceeds. Because this is taken by first or second year students, it may be their first experience with this amount of online and independent work. It may be helpful to check with students on their responses to the introductory reading, since this may help to calibrate the instructors approach in teaching after assessing students' ability to read independently and their attitudes about the food system and sustainability.

What students found difficult

  • Completing and keeping up with the reading in the online text, and outside readings designed to foster understanding, was a constant challenge during the piloting of the modules in this course. We used quizzes to try to incentivize doing the readings and understanding underpinnings of the frameworks presented in the module, and experimented with timing of the quizzes during each week's module to guarantee that students had done reading.
  • Concept mapping was new to some students and these would sometimes bring in diagramming skills from other disciplines, like drawing a process diagram from engineering or biological sciences without some of the more qualitative or causal linkages. It is best to be encouraging since process diagrams are a sort of systems diagram, and have students broaden their perspective to concepts and causal/knowledge relations rather than just material flows or feedback loops. Read more about Concept Maps and how they can be used.


This module is structured around building some basic concepts and models of systems (e.g. coupled human-natural systems, definitions of sustainability, the anthropocene) that are then applied throughout the course and in the capstone. As a matter of metacognition, this should be pointed out to students: they are learning tools and can think about how these tools may change their views of food and food systems from a simpler lens of just production, taste, nutrition, or policy, for example. In a similar way, the summative assessment is a microcosm of the type of learning and analysis students will do in the capstone project, and this can also be made explicit to them. Instructors may also want to poll students about their academic interests or potential major subjects and illustrate how each of these can contribute or interact with food systems, as a way of building an interdisciplinary learning environment. Students' responses to this module may also form a sort of "pre-test" where instructors can identify weaknesses or strengths of individual learners or the group, and their attitudes and approaches regarding sustainability and human-environment interactions.


Module 1 Summative Assessment This assessment asks students to perform some basic analysis of food system examples by identifying human and natural components and drawing a concept map of two food system examples (for instance, the Pennsylvania Dairy Sector or Peruvian smallholder agriculture). Students must also identify sustainability challenges associated with these examples based on reading about them.

References and Resources

Sage, C., 2011. Environment and food. Routledge. The first seven pages of this book are used as an introductory reading to explain the reasons why food should be studied in a coupled human-natural systems approach and other such frameworks.

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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 »