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Building sustainability into an ecological agriculture course: From general to specific

Series contributor: Caroline Begg, Faculty Fellow

Being part of the Sustainability Education Fellows program allowed me the opportunity (though not always the time) to reflect on how to implement specific examples of sustainability in my course Principles of Ecological Agriculture (AGRI 340). Note the students in this course come from a variety of majors across McGill, not just BSc Agr. Modifications to the course were implemented for Winter 2023. For example, instead of a final exam, part of the overall evaluation were four online quizzes. Additionally, at the end of the semester each student was encouraged to write a short reflection on “what you have learned from this course and what aspects you feel were missing or could be explored further,” worth 2.5% of the mark, no matter what they wrote. The reflection was competed by 40 out of 49 students. The information from the students allowed me to evaluate the changes.

Ecological Agriculture incorporates many notions about sustainability, but instead of assuming “sustainability,” I reformulated the lectures around specific discussions of agriculture and its part in social, environmental, and economic sustainability. I incorporated lectures on food waste and loss, food insecurity, the connection to agriculture and possible solutions. There was a lecture on “Colonial effects on Canadian agriculture” and the ongoing impact on the movement towards sustainable agriculture. A discussion was held on the differences between sustainable and regenerative agriculture, and the effect of subsidies. There were discussions on Agri-food systems and their differing impact on the environment. Due to complications at the Mac Campus, only one of my guest speakers was able to give a virtual lecture, which was on LGBTQ+ concerns and issues in agriculture. I received many positive feedback comments on this lecture from a former student who has a farm.

The student reflections offered good information on what they found important and where I needed to explore further. The effects of climate change on agriculture and food security need to be developed. They wanted more discussion about the laboratory results from the plant diversity and the soil microbiology experiments. Include more depth about colonialism in agriculture and how to approach “degrowth” in agriculture. More information and discussion on how indigenous practices and approaches can help with biodiversity in the environment. Overall, the course changes were appreciated and I will stay on this path.

Working with a student who is not from a science background proved interesting. Expectations in terms of how much students must read and write from an arts perspective versus a science perspective were very different. The new course outline includes many papers that the students are required/encouraged to read (this was not implemented during Winter 2023); I am not sure if I will keep of all of this. I have a strong rate of participation in the class in terms of discussion and questions. And if I keep all the papers that the students are required to read, I will need to incorporate discussion time around those papers and less lecture discussion. I am also considering how the use of ChatGPT by students for writing papers will affect assessment. Working with the student did encourage me to reflect on what each component of the assessments was meant to do and how the components corresponded to learning objectives. It was a good experience and I did learn how unstructured I tend to be. As well, being a Sustainable Education Fellow with obligations to restructure a course means AGRI 340 is a different course now.

For future Fellows: use the interactions with other instructors and consultants from TLS as a sounding board for course changes. Establish small working groups for meetings and discussions. I want to thank everyone on the Sustainability Education Fellows team for excellent organization and help. It was very useful, and I will try to incorporate changes in my other courses.

Learn more about including sustainability in your course content, teaching, or assessment approaches, by exploring the Sustainability Education Resources article in Teaching and Learning Services’ Teaching and Learning Knowledge Base.

Read more blog posts in this SEF series and find information about the McGill University Sustainability Education Fellows Program.

Photo credit: Image by Freepik

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