Developing Educational Resources on Sustainable Food Systems for High School Students

Final report for GNC18-256

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2018: $11,354.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Purdue University
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Neil Knobloch
University of Illinois
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Project Information


This project addressed two major problems in the education system: (1) limited educational resources for teaching sustainable food systems; and (2) limited educational resources for teaching systems thinking by developing an open access educational resource called Food Systems Thinker. Food Systems Thinker fostered an appreciation for sustainable agriculture and food systems in order to make an informed decision in food choices or future careers. High school participants learned about sustainability and how their food choices are related to the environment, economy, and community through self-directed online lessons, scaffolding worksheets, and experiential learning activities. The research part of this project was a case study focusing on the exploring how the instructional design of this learning experience helped students learn about, engage in, and practice systems thinking in the context of sustainable food systems. Participants shared that the program was challenging because they were not used to coming up with their own answers, and they enjoyed experiential learning activities the most. In addition, participants reported that they intended to purchase locally grown and raised fresh food from a farm that uses natural methods and comes in a minimal packaging. They would also reduce food waste by eating leftovers, donating, and possibly communicating with businesses about reducing food waste. Participants who were interested in agricultural careers intended to find natural methods in caring for livestock and use natural products and biodiversity principle in growing crops.

Project Objectives:

Learning outcomes:

The Food Systems Thinker curriculum for high school students and older adults aimed to increase the learners’ knowledge about sustainability and systems thinking by engaging them to learn about sustainable food systems topics. Learners had a greater understanding of the importance of supporting sustainable agriculture and how their food choices were related to the environment, economy, and community. Learning about consequences of food systems environmentally, economically, and socially raised an awareness and change a consumer’s attitude towards food choices. Together with the experiential learning activities, learners practiced systems thinking, a higher-order thinking skill.

Action outcomes:

This project mobilized a network of high school students, farmers, and agricultural professionals to build social capital. The farmers were recognized for their work and had the opportunities to share their stories as educators. In the long-term, these developed resources will be accessed online by other schools or farmers interested in sustainable agriculture and food systems. The materials will foster the appreciation for sustainable agriculture among students to make an informed decision in their future career or further study. We showed students how to apply sustainability concepts in everyday decisions and change behaviors to be pro­-environmental. High school students gained insights in sustainable practices and connected to farmers at the local level to learn sustainable practices to strengthen the local community. Finally, the engagement approach would support students to develop life-long learning regarding sustainable food systems.


Materials and methods:

The research aspect of this project was a qualitative case study, which explored how the instructional design of this learning experience helped students learn about, engage in, and practice systems thinking in the context of sustainable food systems. Twelve students completed the Food Systems Thinker program and became the research participants. Data sources were from (1) reflection questions, which asked students what they found useful about the lesson and what they thought could be improved for each lesson; (2) feedback questionnaire; (3) interviews with six participants (who did not have a scheduling conflict and were available to be interviewed for intensive study) before and after the Food Systems Thinker program; and (4) researcher’s field notes from observations and conversations with the teachers. For data analysis, the interview transcripts provided most information and therefore, drove the analysis. For the first cycle coding, I coded the interview transcripts first followed by the interviewees’ responses in the bottom of the worksheets then recoded the interview transcripts to generate a codebook and triangulated the data. Descriptive and In Vivo coding strategies were used to translate data and interpret meanings of each datum. I used descriptive coding strategy to summarize students’ experiences in a word or short phrase. I used In Vivo coding strategy to highlight the students’ voice towards the learning experience. The second cycle of coding was completed using pattern coding to group those coded data into categories or themes. After analyzing data from the six students in the purposive sample, I analyzed the worksheet responses from students who were not interviewed. In addition, field notes from my observations and conversations with the teachers were used as supplementary data source to further substantiate the narrative. For numeric data on the feedback questionnaire, descriptive statistics was used to analyze frequencies with the Statistical Package of the Social Scientist (SPSS) Version 25 to find students’ perceptions towards the overall experience.

Research results and discussion:

The findings indicated that three out of four students found the self-directed online lessons and scaffolding worksheets to be effective. This was similar to a previous research (Jensen, 2011) that students preferred in-class lectures to online lectures because more structured environment is easier to maintain attention. Bennett and Maniar (2012) discussed that there were conflicting findings whether video lectures offered benefits for course satisfaction and confidence, made no significant difference, or had an adverse effect on attendance. They discussed that the lecturers’ enthusiasm became less interesting on the small screen (Bennett & Maniar, 2012). Findings showed that students who did not demonstrate systems thinking reported that they would prefer reading text to the video lectures. Not seeing texts especially made it more difficult for the students to find answers, follow the talks, and grasp the messages.

The findings indicated that students in the case study were not used to a curriculum that encouraged them to think. Most students struggled to complete the worksheets, especially the reflection questions because they could not find the answers on the lessons and had a difficulty coming up with answers on their own. This supported the literature stating that schools in the United States do not teach higher-order thinking to students (Ichsan et al., 2019; NRC, 1988; Smith & Szymanski, 2013). Students who demonstrated systems thinking shared that the curriculum encouraged them to do a lot of thinking and interpret the answers, which made it more difficult than finding and memorizing the answers. Systems thinking values multiple perspectives and requires engagement with other disciplines (Valley et al., 2017). This required students to think in a broader scale, which became even more difficult (Spelt, Biemans, Tobi, Luning, & Mulder, 2009).

Although, some students enjoyed thinking about and recognizing the values of thinking, they shared that they were fatigued by thinking, getting tired of writing explanations, or not always being motivated to think outside the box. Another challenge of systems thinking was not being provided sufficient time. Students reported that they needed more time to think, interpret the questions, and come up with answers. This was also discussed by Spelt et al. (2009) about interdisciplinary thinking which requires a length of time for students to practice in order to reach an adequate level of expertise.

Students learned from the real-world local examples through the online lessons and the experiential learning activities. The experiential learning activities consisted of interacting with guest speakers, visiting a food pantry, and visiting organic farms on the field trips. All students enjoyed the experiential learning activities especially interacting with guest speakers and visiting the farms. Some students did not like visiting a food pantry because they were asked to clean offices. Further, students discussed the usefulness of the field trips in terms of teaching more about food systems, providing hands-on experiences to reinforce what was taught in class, and helping them understand the concepts more. Some students also related what they learned on the farm to the practices they could apply in their future projects especially growing crops in a more sustainable approach. The active learning through experiential learning activities helped students make connections and apply knowledge beyond their classrooms (Knobloch, 2003).

In the end, the sustainable food systems learning experience was successful in teaching a majority of students about making diverse connections within a food system and recognizing a cyclic nature. However, most students needed more time and learning structure to establish systems thinking which would lead to a more understanding of sustainable food systems.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

15 Consultations
10 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Experiential learning activity at a local food pantry

Participation Summary:

5 Farmers participated
50 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The graduate student, guided by her advisor, framed and focused the content and concepts, identified existing resources, and developed a program called Food Systems Thinker which consisted of online educational resources and experiential learning activities to engage learners in learning about sustainable food systems as well as practicing systems thinking. The online educational resource in the form of a website was developed with consultations from 15 farmers and other professionals in food systems and education throughout the developmental process. The website consists of 10 lessons with 10 worksheets. The advisory panel provided feedback for the website and worksheets. The website is available online to scale to a wider audience ( Some lessons include the guideline for students to explore specific issue on their own through hands-on experiences that are suitable for their circumstances.

High school participants navigated through 10 self-directed online lessons where instructional content in each lesson were presented in the formats of readings, slideshows, audio files, and videos. Five educational videos were produced for the lessons from the interviews with five local farmers presenting real-life examples of food systems-related issues. Specifically, biodiversity, seed saving, disruption of food transport, sustainable practices, labor injustice, local economic development, and power of consumers were discussed. Systems concepts were highlighted in each lesson and incorporated in the worksheets to help students practice systems thinking. The lessons fostered the practice of systems thinking through identifying components and relationships within a food system and with other systems, setting boundaries for systems analysis, considering different perspectives and variables, recognizing concepts of stock and flow, feedback, and leverage points, and understanding about delay and time horizon.

Students participated in experiential learning activities for deeper understanding of sustainable food systems in the local context and practicing systems thinking. Students interacted with four guest speakers: an urban farmer, a seed saver, a food systems professor and researcher, and a diversified organic farmer. Students went on two field trips and participated in hands-on activities (i.e., volunteering at a food pantry, using reusable tableware during lunch, visiting a university student farm, visiting a diversified organic farm, and planting seedlings). The description for the activities is presented in the table.



A Whole and Its Components

Identification of components and relationships in a food system.

Levels of Food Systems

Boundary for analysis of a food system at six levels from individual to global scale. 

Interaction with an urban farmer in the local area.

Interactions with Other Systems

The dynamics of food systems with other systems such as ecosystem, political system, economic system, climate system, cultural system, and health system.

Key Players

Roles of different actors in food systems and various perspectives towards a food system.

The Influencing Forces

Variables influencing and affecting on, influenced and affected by a food system.

Impact of Food Systems

Inputs, outputs, stock, and flow in a food system.

Food Waste

The problem of food waste and what a student can do personally to alleviate the problem.

Climate Change and Biodiversity

The delay of climate change effects.
Interaction with a farmer/seed saver on how to use biodiversity to reduce the effects of climate change.

I’m a Consumer/Citizen.

Discussion about feedback in a food system and how to support a sustainable food system.

Working Together

Discussion about time horizon and how a community garden could address food insecurity.

1st Field Trip on March 20, 2019

In the morning, students learned about food insecurity in the local community, witnessed the operation of a food pantry, and volunteered at the food pantry. Students had lunch from a catering service and used reusable tableware.

In the afternoon, students visited a university student farm, interacted with a farm manager and a professor/farmer who taught food systems to learn about agricultural majors, small farm operation, and systems thinking. Students walked through farm structures and explore farm spaces.

2nd Field Trip on April 2, 2019

Students visited a diversified organic farm, interacted with the farmer about the operation and challenges on the farm, witnessed a small-scale composting operation, and had an up-close exposure to farm animals. Students worked in the greenhouses, planted seedlings, and harvested and tasted carrots.

Students had lunch at the restaurant that received some fresh produce from the farm.

The curriculum, Food Systems Thinker, was presented at North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) 2019 conference on June 19, 2019 in Twin Falls, Idaho. The abstract was published in NACTA journal. See citation:

Charoenmuang, M., Knobloch, N. A., Benjamin, T. J., Mitchell, K. A., Scherer, H. H., Shepardson, D. P., & Wang, H.-H. (2019). Food Systems Thinker: Systems thinking in the context of sustainable food systems. NACTA Journal, 63(1), 75.

After the curriculum was implemented, research data were analyzed and presented during Mingla Charoenmuang’s Doctoral Dissertation Seminar titled High School Students’ Systems Thinking in the Context of Sustainable Food Systems at Purdue University on September 19, 2019.

In the future, we plan to publish two journal articles about curriculum development and how student participants demonstrated systems thinking in the context of sustainable food systems.

Project Outcomes

3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:


There were 15 high school students (grade 10-12) participating the Food Systems Thinker program but only 12 students completed the program. Fifty faculty, staff and graduate students and three community members learned about the curriculum and outcomes through presentations.

Number of visits to the website: 406 (as of October 30, 2019)

Working together:

This project mobilized a network of high school students, farmers, and agricultural professionals to build social capital that strengthened the community to work together and learn about each other. Farmers and agricultural professionals expanded their leadership capacity by contributing to the resource development as well as serving as guest speakers. They played an important role in providing their insights regarding sustainable agriculture and food systems they have experienced. Especially, five Indiana farmers involved in the curriculum development process and were recorded for educational videos that helped students and wider audience learn about a sustainable food system in the Midwest region. Two farmers were asked to share about sustainable farming practices on their farms and two farmers participated in the discussion with students as guest speakers.

Agricultural sustainability:

This project focused on human capacity building. The results contribute to the agricultural education community. High school students who participated in this project learned about agricultural sustainability that encouraged them to make everyday decisions and learned about consequences their diets have at the economic, social, and environmental levels. Their awareness of the sustainability issues in agriculture helped them become an informed citizen regardless of their decision to choose a career path in agriculture. Students who were non-farm stakeholders with the knowledge about sustainable agriculture and food systems would be able to make informed decisions relevant to purchases, policy change, and food chain improvements through their future paths. They would likely support sustainable agriculture initiatives and farmers because they see the value of agricultural sustainability. This project increased the number of young people that call for healthy affordable food with environmental quality and stewardship in mind.

Students who were interested in a career path in agriculture had a greater understanding and awareness in sustainable practices. These students would become the future farmers or the supporters of the sustainable agriculture policy. Specifically, the future farmers became familiar to the sustainable agriculture principles, which led to the potential of them to adopt this approach on their farmland.

Students’ intention:

Students reported that they intended to purchase locally grown and raised fresh food from a farm that uses natural methods and comes in a minimal packaging. They would also reduce food waste by eating leftovers, donating, and possibly communicating with businesses about reducing food waste. Participants who were interested in agricultural careers intended to find natural methods in caring for livestock and use natural products and biodiversity principle in growing crops.


Participants were asked to complete a feedback questionnaire about their perceptions toward the Food Systems Thinker program after they completed the program. The following table showed participants’ level of agreement on evaluation items.

Table: Students’ Perceptions Toward the Food Systems Thinker Program (N=12)


Percentage of Agreement

I can use what I learn in this learning experience.


I have a greater understanding of how my food choices are related to the food systems as a whole.


I’d recommend this learning experience.


Interacting with guest speakers was valuable to me.


Visiting the diversified organic farm was valuable to me.


This learning experience effectively challenged me to think.


I liked learning from examples in Indiana.


Volunteering at the food pantry was valuable to me.


I developed the ability to think in systems thinking way.


I think online lessons provided an effective learning experience.


Worksheets effectively helped me learn the online lessons.


This learning experience gave me skills and techniques directly applicable to my future career.


Knowledge Gained:

We learned that systems thinking is a type of thinking that is crucial to understand sustainable agriculture. We collected research data regarding systems thinking, which is a higher-order thinking skill that can promote sustainability principles. However, measuring systems thinking is challenging and we learned that it requires a prolonged engagement and multiple data sources that are qualitative in nature such as interviews and observations. The development of systems thinking is a process that takes place over time. The Food Systems Thinker that we developed needs to be implemented with a period of time that engages students to practice higher-order thinking and allows students to view sustainable agriculture holistically. We learned that some students could demonstrate sustainable agriculture change by opening their mind and making connections with social, environmental, and economic perspectives.

Success stories:

Excerpts from students’ interview transcripts regarding the success of Food Systems Thinker program are presented below.

“I thought [the program] taught me more about food systems, especially towards the end I learn more about food systems through the field trips and the lessons and that the food system has a big impact on the environment more than what I thought it had…. I think the field trips were very fun and educational. I really liked going out to the farm and everything. And I also liked going to the food pantry, getting in some volunteer hours, and seeing what they do at the food pantry and what they do for the homeless people. I think the online lessons helped a lot. It put a lot of background information into the field trips. As we went on the field trips, we knew what we were going to expect and we learned more information off of the background information.” (Student 1, female, grade 11)

“I really enjoyed this. I've never been made to think about something. I've always just learned it, memorized it, and then moved on. Then I've never actually had to do something about it or go and see what we were learning about. And [this program] makes you think a lot more and I really liked it.” (Student 2, female, grade 11)

“I really enjoy the field trips to see the farmers. I liked actually being able to get out and see what they are doing and the idea of how they operate a farm without using chemicals and without using traditional large-scale methods. That was interesting.” And “If you choose to grow different apples, it can benefit the environment in different ways and it can be more resistant to different diseases. That was very interesting to learn about. That was my favorite episode.” (Student 3, male, grade 10)


The grant has expanded the opportunity for me to involved more farmers and agricultural professionals in developing the resource and organizing the field trips as well as supporting high school students in attending the field trips. I am very thankful for the grant and the support from the NCR-SARE staff throughout the project.

I’d like to share my recommendation that this type of project could use more time and more funding. The free platform ( did not allow much of interactive activities to engage the learners and more funding and more time would be necessary to improve this. Also, I did not have sufficient time to produce more dynamic videos. Therefore, the existing video clips are set up more like a lecture rather than an edutainment video. Additionally, the funding only covered part of the project. A majority of my time commitment as a graduate student was funded by other sources.

Food Systems Thinker program helped high school students see a bigger picture. Students enjoyed the experience and practiced systems thinking throughout the program. The online resource is now accessible to the public. Educators or audience who are interested could use in their classrooms or use to learn more about sustainable food systems. I invite everyone to engage with the curriculum, and share their thoughts and get more updates about this topic on Instagram ( and Facebook (

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.