InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Future of Food > Instructor Stories > Steven Vanek
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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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Steven Vanek: Using in The Future of Food at Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus


About this Course

An introductory survey-type course for non-majors, aimed at first and second-year students. We had a general-education designation which tends to attract a very wide set of student interests.

12
students

1 75 minute session

Course Syllabus, the Future of Food, Penn State University (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 46kB Nov21 16)

Your introductory statement: I participated in piloting the course as one of the main authors. I have always been excited about this course because I think it fills such a vital need: connecting learners through something familiar and ubiquitous like food, to the central issues of human-environment interactions and sustainability. Like many course pilots, this first iteration of the course tested this aspiration in a practical context with a variety of learners, and I wasn't always sure that we were meeting the compelling vision for the course. In the end, many of our students emerged from the course more aware of issues of sustainability around food and with creative ideas they had proposed for their capstone regions, which was very gratifying to me.

Food and sustainability is such a vital and educationally rich area for student effort, and I am hopeful that with the modifications we made in the pilot, students will now find the course more logical, balanced and compelling – I can't wait to see what future iterations will produce"

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrateMaterials

We attempted to teach the course as written in the pre-pilot course development phase, but made many modifications to assignments and scheduling to reduce the workload during the semester, when it became clear that some students were overwhelmed by the workload and were falling behind.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

This set of modules was the course in its entirety – we conducted a "start to finish" pilot evaluation.

Assessments

We used quizzes, formative assessments, summative assessments, capstone stage outputs, and the capstone final presentation to assess students. We ran a metacognition blog early in the semester and spaced out the blog entries as the semester went on when it became clear that we had designed a course with a crippling amount of work (and grading!). The students did not complain about the quizzes but often did surprisingly poorly on them, indicating the need perhaps to emphasize reading beforehand. After the pilot, I think a quiz strategy that allows multiple tries so students can improve their scores, and slightly harder questions that foster attention to the reading, is the best one. We reduced formatives in the course because in many cases there was not time in the class period to fully take advantage of them or correct misconceptions – again, too much work was assigned. The summative assessments were better overall because there was more interaction around them in the class periods and many teachable moments. The capstone stages often showed evidence of rushed or cursory work from the groups and the need for more feedback which a lower workload would have allowed. A few group's capstone presentations also lacked depth, but in general the capstone final session at semester's end was one of the most rewarding parts of the class for me as an instructor, and contained opportunities to draw comparisons among capstone regions and examples of coupled human-natural systems elements. For me this exemplifies the fact that the assessment area of the course could still benefit from a lot of innovation, for example a mid-semester presentation to start drawing these connections and lessons from students' creative output. Regarding the blog, students complained that it was very removed from the rest of the course content (partly by design- they were supposed to relate the course to current news or research that they found independently) and if an instructor is interested in pursuing this, they should probably link it somehow to the capstone project. A final note is that this course may still have a substantial amount of grading and benefit from help for grading from a teaching assistant if it is taught in the classroom, if the instructor is also teaching other courses concurrently, and especially if it is taught as a larger survey class with e.g. over 30 students.

Outcomes

I referred to this somewhat in my opening statement. I think that everyone came out of the course with some new concept, fundamental set of facts, or key debate present in their mindset and approach to food and food systems, and I am proud of that and of the good evaluations we received from students, along with their honest critiques. We definitely fell short in ways that were related to the fact that this was a pilot, with too much content and assignments to cover at times insufficiently organized expectations that were changed over the semester. I think that we exhibited the danger of a group-authored and multidisciplinary course that students are being rushed from one "bucket" of content and analyses to another, without the time to appreciate the connections between them (except for some very committed and hard-working types). There is definitely room for future instructors to innovate further in classroom and online activities and in assessments that bind the different modules and the capstone together in a more productive way for students. The linkages are definitely there to make this a truly interdisciplinary course, because of the way that food systems combine human social factors and natural/earth system processes.

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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 »