Teaching Tips and Highlights

Teaching Tips from: Julie Cotton- Michigan State’s SAFS Program


Sustainable agriculture and food systems programs throughout the nation tend to share the pedagogy of experiential learning. The unique approaches that each program takes often reflect the activities of the burgeoning sustainable agriculture movement in their region, or the expertise at their institution.

Here at Michigan State University, we built our Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems undergraduate program to create active learners across many disciplines that contribute to the food system. We recognize that building a sustainable food system is going to take more than just growing food more sustainably – a diverse network of professionals that can reflect sustainability principles thought the value chain and shared goal of a healthy food system for all. At any time, we have up to 17 majors in the undergraduate program, which is both challenging and stimulating.

As a primary instructor for the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems minor, I have the challenging but exciting task of building projects that engage students in meaningful work that can also contribute to their chosen career path. To this end, we have built a capstone course that provides diverse small groups of students a meaningful project opportunity to complete with a community partner.

We identify community partners that have the capacity to host groups and can define a project that engages students in meaningful learning experiences. The process allows us to create generative projects that both provide meaningful professional experience for our students and a useful end product for our partners. Beyond the “hard skills” that the students learn to complete their work, they also learn a multitude of “soft skills” that are so important in post-graduate success. Our partners come from both in and outside the university, and the process of engagement respects the time and needs of both students and partners.

Our four field projects this year help demonstrate how we design and structure these opportunities – and I’ve provided some of the insights they provided to our students (and instructors).

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1) The Allen Market Place (AMP), a newly founded food hub project in the sister city of Lansing, serves a neighborhood that has been under-served in healthy food availability. AMP wanted to identify additional retail opportunities in the area. These students mapped potential small private food retail operations, and visited with several store owners to gauge interests and constraints in purchasing local produce.

These students learned about the retail and post-harvest distribution systems, as well as the retail possibilities in urban settings – like ethnic stores looking for specialty items – that can help inform growers. They were also challenged to “cold call”, interview and scout with a particular business end in mind. I watched as students were empowered by knowing that they can be seen as professionals, and learn how to prepare the “elevator pitch” that can help any professional share their story.

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2) The Food Day group worked on-campus to through a Food Day event in coordination with the Real Food Challenge. Last year, the project group surveyed at cafeterias and found that MSU students wanted to see more local Michigan food on campus. With a growing fresh apple market, new distributor opportunities, and a commitment to buy more Michigan apples, the MSU campus was a great target for a small change that could make a big difference – getting local apples year-round in all retail and cafeteria spaces on campus.

These students followed their event that showcased Michigan apples with information gathering on production, distribution, constraints and barriers to purchases of Michigan Apples. They talked to producer groups, individual farmers and local food procurement to encourage the campus to take the next step and get local apples year-round by trying new varieties and taking advantage of emerging regional distributors.

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3) With new federal food safety guidelines in the works, many farmers are apprehensive and concerned about the impact that these new laws will have on their farms. Luckily, we have savvy and pro-active Conservation District outreach specialists in Michigan that help farmers meet a key factor – water quality standards – through the free and confidential Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).

This group worked with the outreach specialist Jen Silveri to design new marketing materials that would inform farmers of the services available, and encourage them to take advantage of the free services in preparation for the upcoming new regulations. From simplifying policy messages, to finding appropriate media modes to reach farmers, these students gained insight and respect for the complexities of farming and those that serve farmers.

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4) Our forth project took created a visual tool to help farmers look at the optimal nitrogen application rates for their fields, as well as the environmental consequences of nitrogen application at different rates. They had the expertise of a postdoc at MSU Kellogg Biological Station, where our Long Term Ecological Research site on agriculture is housed, to help inform their efforts.

Several years of data collection and other studies have suggested optimal nitrogen application rates for particular areas of the state, and other research has provided some evidence of the atmospheric and water impacts of different types of nitrogen application. These students compiled evidence and build a simple model that allows farmers to see the outcomes of nitrogen application at various rates in a simplified chart form, which can help them optimize their choice of inputs and yield, while balancing their environmental impacts.

Obviously, this class doesn’t aim to have all students graduate with the same skill set, but to provide tangible experience which empowers students to trust their own ability to affect change by applying their expertise, and to be able to dialogue and incorporate knowledge from other areas of expertise. From utilizing social media to building social networks, from solving difficult equations to overcoming distribution chain issues, these students show that they all have what it takes to make our food system more sustainable.