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Hannah Scherer: Teaching A Growing Concern in Ecological Agriculture at Virginia Tech

About this course

An introductory course for majors and non-majors.

Two 50 minute lecture
One 3-hour lab
public university

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 3.4MB Aug4 14)

Ecological Agriculture presents an overview of historic and modern agricultural practices. Surveys the principles of ecology in the context of managed ecosystems, civic agriculture, and food systems. Explores ecologically based practices and their use in holistic and integrated agricultural systems.

This course is one of four required courses for the multidisciplinary Civic Agriculture and Food Systems minor offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It is the only natural science course within the minor, and is designed to provide students with a basic working knowledge of the principles of ecology and how they can guide decision making in agricultural systems. This course is co-taught by a team of Virginia Tech faculty, staff, and students who comprise a cross-campus, multidisciplinary group involved in civic agriculture and food system research, education, and outreach. Using a mix of traditional and experiential learning formats, this course is designed to help students gain transdisciplinary knowledge and skills about civic agriculture by directly involving students in civic agricultural experiences that occur in the everyday world in which we live and work.

Course Goals:

Having successfully completed this course, the student will be able to:

  • Evaluate the differences within and between sustainable agriculture systems, and how different systems arise from the particular ecologies of their origin
  • compare and contrast natural and managed ecosystems
  • analyze the role of basic ecological principles in sustainable agricultural practices
  • critically define the role of local adaptation in creating ecologically sound agriculture practices
  • construct concept maps or models of farming system using systems thinking
  • construct a three year integrated farm plan using ecologically based practices
  • assess and critique farm plans from the ecological, economic and social perspectives

Course Content

Course content begins with an introduction to ecological principles, followed by basic principles of and ecologically-based management practices for soils, plants, animals, insects, weeds, and pathogens. The course concludes with environmental impacts of and threats to agriculture. Throughout the semester, students apply what they have learned to a long-term project where they collaboratively develop an integrated farm plan.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

My course is taught by a team of faculty who each contribute their disciplinary expertise to the topic. Typical modes of instruction for this course include lecture, facilitated discussion/ debate, and field trips; the majority of the disciplinary content is delivered in a traditional lecture format. I taught the entire InTeGrate Growing Concern Module during my first semester as a member of the teaching team. The InTeGrate materials allowed me to model high-quality student-centered learning for my colleagues. They were excited to see this type of teaching in action and its impact on student engagement and learning has inspired further collaboration to redesign other portions of the course.

Overall, the entire module worked very well in my course! The concepts flowed from one unit to the next and the idea of sustainability of soil as a natural resource was reinforced throughout. The major challenge I encountered was that the structure of the module was very different than the rest of the class (lecture/ lab), so it was an adjustment for students to engage in new ways. To help with this, I kept organized and gave them reminders about what was expected of them before, during, and after class.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

This module helped my students appreciate that soil is a resource that needs to be conserved. While students in my course had some prior knowledge about agricultural systems that helped them contextualize the material from the beginning, many had not considered soils in much detail and it was exciting to see them engage with this topic. The summative assessment provided them with an opportunity to practice communicating what they learned to a lay audience; this is something that they will likely do in the future.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

Molly Kent, Carleton College Download Hannah Scherer video (MP4 Video 14.7MB) Details

I taught all six units consecutively over a two week period in my course (1 unit in each of 4 50-minute lecture periods and 2 units in a 2.5-hour lab period with a break in between). Instruction began during the second week of the 15-week semester following an introductory week where we covered the basic principles of ecology and how they relate to traditional forms of agriculture. Module materials were supplemented by a field trip to multiple soil pits the following week. The soils concepts in the module provided a foundation for the rest of the course as we considered additional components of agricultural systems.

Unit 1

  • I taught this unit in a 50-minute lecture period with no significant changes.
  • My students had no prior experience with observing and/or interpreting landscapes and the overview slides at the beginning of the module were very effective in introducing these concepts.
  • During the small group work, my students were engaged in conversation and I observed them applying the ideas from the introductory materials to the photos.

Unit 2

  • I taught this unit in a 50-minute lecture period.
  • To connect with Unit 1, I had a few students volunteer to share their responses to the wrap-up question on the Unit 1 homework at the beginning of class before I collected it.
  • My students loved this unit! The classroom was buzzing with energy as they examined their soil samples, debated how they were going to measure porosity, and carried out their plans. Their experiences prompted an end of class discussion about the process of science and the challenges that scientists face when developing methods for getting good data about a phenomenon of interest.

Unit 3

  • I taught this unit in a 2.5-hour lab period combined with Unit 4 after a break.
  • The only significant change I made was to have students complete the homework reflection in class because I had extra time due to the lab class.
  • I had them use a piece of paper to record their answers to the exercises instead of a notecard because it seemed like they would need more space.
  • I decided to do some of the calculations on the board with the whole class because some groups were struggling with this part.

Unit 4

  • I taught this unit in a 2.5-hour lab period following a break after completing Unit 3.
  • My students really liked exploring the soils in our area and discussed using the smartphone app in different places to see what the soils were like elsewhere.
  • For the in-class activity, we had better success with the web based version because the smartphone app only retrieves the most prevalent unit in your exact location. In our case, this soil did not have a profile associated with it, so students were not able to complete the activity using this dataset. With the web version, students were able to choose a map unit in another part of campus and obtain a profile.

Unit 5

  • I taught this unit in a 50-minute lecture period.
  • The time for each group to present their factor (from the homework) to the class was important for clearing up confusion. Many students had outstanding questions after the homework and it was good to have this time to discuss each factor and how they relate to each other before moving on.

Unit 6

  • I taught this unit in a 50-minute lecture period.
  • I opened the class by doing a short wrap-up discussion of climate and agriculture to provide some closure to Unit 5 from the previous class.
  • I would suggest building in extra time to explicitly address student questions that have come up throughout the module and reinforcing the concepts before assigning the summative assessment. I discussed some of the questions that were on the exit cards from Unit 3 and gave students a chance to ask other questions about the module before discussing the Fact Sheet final project. I felt that it was important to use some of this class time to make sure that the students didn't have any outstanding questions before moving on. This ended up taking a while and so I skipped the "brain dump" exercise since they had already been thinking about soil and didn't need a warm-up.
  • Students ended up with only a few minutes of independent work time, so the majority of the work on the Fact Sheet was completed outside of class.


I used all of the formative and summative assessments for each unit to keep track of how students were responding to the materials, determine their progress towards learning goals, and provide them the opportunity to reflect on the material outside of class time. Students did very well with these and appreciated how they related to the in-class activities. It is important to decide up front how you will give credit for formative assessments and communicate this to the students to encourage completion of these ungraded assignments. I chose to give students participation points for bringing completed prework assignments to class on time and this worked well. I also used the Module Summative Assessment (Unit 6) in its entirety and this was very well received by students as a creative alternative to an exam.


My primary goal in using this module was to help students in my course appreciate soil as a natural resource of vital importance to agricultural systems. It was important to me to accomplish this using engaging, student-centered pedagogy and the module materials definitely helped me achieve this. Student performance on the summative assessment demonstrated that they have a fairly sophisticated understanding of soil sustainability and were able to communicate this to a lay audience in a creative way.

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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 »