Section 2: Environmental Dynamics and Drivers
Authors of this section are Heather Karsten, Pennsylvania State University, Department of Plant Science; Gigi Richard, Colorado Mesa University, Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences; and Steven Vanek, Pennsylvania State University, Department of Geography.
Summary and Overview
In this section:
- Module 4: Food and Water
- Module 5: Soils and Nutrients
- Module 6: Crops
- Capstone Project: Stage 2
Section 2 of the course begins the exploration of the interaction between human food systems and natural Earth systems, including soil and water resources and how those resources influence the selection of which crops a farmer grows. The modules in this section explore how natural Earth systems support our food production systems, and how our human food systems also alter Earth's soil and water resources. The section contains three modules, each of which requires one week of class time. The soils module could be expanded to take more time if necessary to cover the material.
Strengths of the Section
The principal focus of Section 2 is to highlight the connections between a region's soil resources, water resources and the crops that are grown, and to examine the impacts that agricultural production has on our soil and water resources. A strength of this section is its emphasis on different science disciplines as well as the human component of our food systems, and continues the course's emphasis on the coupled human-natural system. Module 4 on water, introduces students to how plants use water and their role in the hydrologic cycle, and then demonstrates how water is embedded in all of the food we eat. The soil module, Module 5 is a crash course in soil science, and opens the students' eyes to the complexity and importance of soil. Case studies on the human management of nutrients bring home the immense impact that our agricultural systems have on our natural resources. Module 6 introduces plants into the picture with a look at crop life cycles, characteristics, and climatic adaptation.
The assessment activities for all three modules use authentic and credible data, employ systems thinking, and temporal, spatial, and geographic thinking, and tie the underlying science to situations that are easy for the students to relate to. In the water module (Module 4), students compute the water footprint for different types of diets, explore the concept of virtual water, and then use an online tool to estimate crop yields based on different irrigation strategies. The assessments for Module 5 have the students exploring global soil resource maps and estimating nutrient balances for different scenarios. The crop module (Module 6) is particularly engaging for students as they explore what crops are grown in what parts of the world using a global crop database and examine the world's top commodity crops and how those crops have changed with time.
Section 2 is the second three-week content phase of the semester-long undergraduate course, The Future of Food. The course focuses on the coupled human-natural systems that interact to create our global, regional, and local food systems. The course is designed as an introductory or general education interdisciplinary course with an emphasis on biological and Earth sciences, coupled with a human geography component. Although it is intended for use as a component of the full online or blended course, it could potentially be used on its own as a component of a different course, and its modules can be used individually.
Module 4: Food and Water
- Analyze the relationships between climate, availability of water resources, irrigation, and agricultural food production.
- Examine their water footprints and the virtual water embedded in agricultural food products.
- Summarize the major impacts of agriculture on both quality and quantity of water resources.
Module 5: Soils and Nutrients
- Identify soil nutrients and soil function as key resource in need of protection for food production and food systems.
- Describe spatial and geographic variation in soil resources and soil fertility.
- Distinguish between preexisting aspects of biogeochemical cycling and human-induced processes that affect biogeochemical cycling.
- Attribute different soil fertility outcomes in food systems to the coupled natural and human factors and feedbacks that produce them.
Module 6: Crops
- Describe key features of categories of crop plants and how they are adapted to environmental and ecological factors
- Explain how soil and climatic features determine what crops can be produced in a location, and how humans may alter an environment for crop production.
- Classify environments as high or low resource environments and interpret how both environmental and socio-economic factors contribute to crop plant selection (coupled human-nature systems); and the pros and cons of the cultivation of various crop types.
- Module 4: Food and Water- This module introduces the interconnection between the growing of food crops and our water resources, explores how water is essential for growing food, and how water is embedded in all of the food they eat, and explores how growing food has significant impacts on both the quality and quantity of our surface and ground water resources.
- Module 5: Soils and Nutrients -This module gives students a basic grounding in the nature of soils and soil nutrients that allows them to understand and analyze their role in food production. It also focuses on ways that soils are vulnerable to degradation that impairs their role in food production, and examines how soil management can protect soils in their role of supplying nutrients to crops and help to maintain other valuable resources such as surface water.
- Module 6: Crops - This module introduces students to key features of crop plants, explores how climate and soil influence the selection of annual and perennial plants and how plant life cycles contribute to soil conservation; it also examines some key crop plant classification systems and characteristics, such as plant families and physiological characteristics.
- Capstone Project 2