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Feeding the World - Teaching Sustainability in a Plant Biology Course

Susan Singer, Biology, Carleton College

Plant Biology at Carleton is designed to introduce students to the basic concepts of plant anatomy, morphology, evolution, biochemistry, physiology, and development in the context of food and agriculture. As a course that also fulfills a requirement for our Environmental Studies major, it is an excellent setting for introducing students to sustainability issues surrounding the challenges of feeding the world. Plants are the foundation for human nutrition and plant biology adds substantially to a student's understanding of plants as nutrients as well as what it takes to grow nutritious plants. Every topic in the syllabus from cell walls and secondary compounds to nitrogen fixation can be woven into a food and agriculture theme and used as a jumping off point for exploring how we can sustainably produce enough food to nourish our rapidly expanding population.

The current course provides two longer-term projects that engage students in sustainability topics. Over the course of the term, students read both their textbook and a popular press book, A Nation of Farmers, which makes a case for returning to small-scale farms as the only way to achieve sustainability. Students write four short position papers, guided by specific prompts that require them to analyze claims in Nation of Farmers in the context of their textbook, class work, and field trips. The short papers are a means to get them thinking and writing analytically about sustainability and how their basic science learning is relevant. The second project takes place over the entire term and results in a ten-page paper on an issue related to plants as food that is truly interdisciplinary. Beginning with a class meeting with a college librarian, students are introduced to the tools that will allow them to access literature from multiple disciplines, ranging from the science to social sciences to humanities. The prepare a paper proposal and provide an annotated bibliography that I use as a venue to provide feedback on the balance of articles, scholarly nature of the works cited, and scope of the project. I meet with students throughout the term to help them further define their work and locate evidence-based references to support the case they build in the paper. Near the end of the term, we use a jigsaw structured class format so students can share their findings with each other. The critique classmates papers (some years for credit) and can collaborate with others who have overlapping interests. To support both projects, I arrange for field trips to Syngenta (an international agricultural biotechnology company), a local cereal packaging company with a strong sustainability program, our local food co-operative, and our campus Food Truth group. My goal is to expose them to many different perspectives, including the role of genetically engineered (GE) crops in feeding the world and sustaining the food supply. Bringing in an international focus has been particularly helpful in engaging students in policy issues related to food, sustainability, and GE crops.

My goal for the upcoming workshop is to collaborate with geosciences to find ways to enhance the soil science aspect of the course. This fits in well with how plants obtain nutrients from the soil, the role of nitrogen fixation and nodule formation, and enhancement of phosphorous uptake mediated by mycorrhizae in the soil, which have played a substantial role in the evolution of land plants. We also cover the role plants have played in changing the geology of the Earth. I'm excited about several recent geoscience articles that address this topic and have begun to integrate the information on how plants have changed Earth into my course. Working with geoscientists would strengthen my approach to soils in the context of a plant biology course substantially.