The shift: Students learn through community projects
In the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, learning takes place well beyond classroom walls—it happens on farms, in neighbourhood houses, in local gardens, and in spaces all around the community. Through the Land, Food and Community (LFC) series, a collection of core courses, students work with community partners on a range of food-related projects. Not only do students gain hands-on learning experience, but they also have the opportunity to create real, lasting impact in their community.
The LFC series, developed in 1999, was a key part of a transformation in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS). The faculty wanted to bring forward more interdisciplinary thinking and opportunities for students, in all majors, to collaborate on food system challenges. The series aims to give students a more comprehensive look at food systems, teaching them to create systems that are ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable.
“It’s an opportunity for our students to come together and work on problems that none of their disciplines alone can address,” explains Will Valley, an instructor in LFS and the academic director of the LFC series.
Through a collection of courses, students participate in a range of community-based experiential learning and community-based action research projects. Each year, students across the faculty work on approximately 100 community projects with more than 70 organizations.
In the community
In two of the core courses, LFS 250 and LFS 350, students work with community partners outside of campus. In LFS 250, students analyze global and regional food systems and translate abstract theories into tangible lessons. Working with the Vancouver School Board, students plan food literacy workshops in K-12 classrooms, teaching skills such as baking bread and setting up composting bins.
In LFS 350, students explore food system sustainability, food security, and food sovereignty through working on a project in the community. In the past, students have worked on projects such as improving community kitchens, increasing waste diversion rates at community centres, and building new community herb gardens.
While students get the opportunity to learn and work in the community, project partners appreciate the insight that students bring.
“It’s really great to be part of a learning community and have a little bit more diversity of voices and perspective,” says Jennifer Meilleur, coordinator of the North Shore Table Matters Network, an organization that aims to build sustainable food systems and make healthy food accessible. Meilleur has been working with a group of LFS students to create a public, online database of food assets in the North Shore, which includes people, places, and resources for buying, sharing, growing, eating, and learning about food.
“The work that [the students] are doing is really invaluable because it increases the capacity to collect the information that we need, and that’s one of the most important steps,” Meilleur says. “The ultimate impact, I think, is that we will have a more robust food system.”
In the capstone course of the series, LFS 450, students work to increase the sustainability of the UBC campus food system and beyond. Taking on a consultant role, students work with a campus food system partner to address a problem or need and present solutions to stakeholders. Students have worked with partners including UBC Food Services, AMS Food Services, the AMS Food Bank, Campus + Community Planning, the UBC Farm, Building Operations, and student-run businesses such as Sprouts, Agora, and Seedlings. Some projects also include an off-campus co-partner such as The Meal Exchange, a non-profit organization that empowers students to take an active role in improving their local food system. The projects are developed by the UBC SEEDS Sustainability Program, a campus initiative that advances sustainability by creating partnerships between students, faculty, and staff.
The course is open to all UBC students and emphasizes how students from different programs can work together to create a real impact. “The students’ work has led to a lot of tangible action on campus,” says Liska Richer, manager of the SEEDS Sustainability Program, within Campus + Community Planning.
Other projects have included designing food targets for the AMS Lighter Footprint Strategy, signage to inform the Sort It Out recycling bins, purchasing guidelines, community food programs, and campus food recovery plans. The process for many of the projects is often iterative, with students building on previous groups’ work. For example, student groups created production, then management plans for Orchard Garden and the rooftop garden located in the student union building.
Learning a new way of learning
For some students, the jump away from the classroom can be an intimidating shift. But it is a shift that the teaching team hopes students will ultimately find worthwhile.
“[Students] know what to expect in a midterm, a paper, a final exam. There is more uncertainty and complexity that students have to work through in this kind of learning environment,” explains Kyle Nelson, the community-based experiential learning officer at the UBC Centre for Community Engaged Learning.
But that uncertainty, Valley says, is where learning and growth happens.
“A big part of our model is that students are answering questions that nobody’s answered before, so there’s no right or wrong—it’s mainly about how [they are] addressing the questions.”
To help students with this process, the team has developed reflection tools and activities for students to articulate their learning, explaining where it happens, when it happens, and with whom it happens. They hope students will better understand their own skills and work more effectively as a team.
“No matter what discipline or program stream they go into, they see the value of the challenge of group work and the challenge of coming together on a food systems issue,” explains Nelson.
Valley adds, “It’s not just about the content they’re learning. It’s about learning about learning.” He points to a pedagogical approach called the “ecology of knowledge”—an understanding that where you learn can impact what you learn and how you learn. “I think that type of understanding sticks with the students, the TAs, and the professors much deeper than some of the content, which is inherently always changing.”
Not only is the teaching team supporting students throughout the process, but community partners also see themselves as co-educators in the development of future food systems professionals.
“It’s really important to bring students into community spaces, to recognize that the community holds a lot of knowledge. It’s really up to us at the university to ensure that the students and these relationships add value to the community’s work,” adds Nelson.
For third-year LFS student Iva Jankovic, realizing the value of her work was one of the most significant things she learned from her experience in the series.
“I think a big thing that I learned is how to integrate many different forms of knowledge, learning to work together in a professional setting, and understanding that our actions and our project is actually helping in this community…it’s very humbling to think.”
The team is continuing to work on the series to ensure that the right structures are put in place so community partners, students, or instructors are not overloaded. They are also continuing to work with community partners to see how relationships can be further improved and how they can measure ongoing impact in the community.
For Valley, he hopes that students continue to see the benefit of community learning, and how food can be connected to many different issues—a lesson he learned when he was a UBC student in the core series himself.
“It completely changed the way I saw food and food systems. It really helped realign my understanding of the ecological and social sustainability issues we see in society,” Valley says.
“If we want to have a healthy, sustainable, just food system, we really need to think about food system education. The core series has been a really interesting opportunity to think about changes we want to see in the food system, beyond the university, but trying to align those changes with how we’re getting our students to think in the curriculum and in the classes.”
Valley, W., Fu, G., & Jovel, E. (2017). Preparing students for complexity and uncertainty: Flexible Learning strategies for developing environmental professionals. In P. B. Corcoran, J.P. Weakland, & A. E. J. Wals (Eds.) Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education (pp. 217–228). Wageningen Academic Publishers. http://www.wageningenacademic.com/doi/abs/10.3920/978-90-8686-846-9_15
Valley, W., Wittman, H., Jordan, N., Ahmed, S., & Galt, R. (in-press). An Emerging Signature Pedagogy for Sustainable Food Systems Education. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.
This case study was presented at Teaching Innovation in Practice (TIP): Tipping Points: Integrating Community-Identified Issues with Student Learning using Flexible Approaches in December 2015. Watch the webcast here.