Agroecology Analysis of Farming Systems: A Summer Course

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $18,303.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Animal Production: grazing - continuous, grazing - multispecies, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: no-till, ridge tillage
  • Farm Business Management: farm-to-institution, agricultural finance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: wildlife
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life


    This project has supported development and execution of an innovative, field-based immersion course that serves as a prototype for educators who seek to foster greater understanding of agroecosystems analysis. Seventy-six students, 10 faculty, and resources from eight institutions of higher learning participated. Students developed appropriate, multiple indicators of sustainability and then utilized the indicators to critically analyze the sustainability of nine different farming systems in Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Students reported a very high level of satisfaction in the course and would recommend the course to another person. Several courses have been developed or planned based on this experience.


    Students within typical agriculture and natural resources education programs in U.S. universities usually experience a course- and campus-based “curriculum” within which to engage and process their learning. But such education is often highly compartmentalized and fragmented (Vietor, 1996). Students experience the curriculum as a collection of courses rather than an integrated “plan of learning.” Many undergraduate programs offer “field trips” and other short-term experiences within their curricula to introduce students in situ to farms, farm operations and practices. “Cooperative” education approaches, in which periods of formal classroom instruction alternate with ‘on-the-job’ experiences have been utilized for several decades in some fields (McKeachie, 1999). But such endeavors often do not provide the time and space for students to become “immersed” in critical reflection of their experiences and to develop a thorough and systematic perspective.

    Similarly, some courses do not highlight the transferability of the experiences or concepts to other contexts (McKeachie, 1999).
    Adults accumulate an ever increasing array of experiences upon which they base further learning, an idea that is consistent with a “constructivist” view of education (Angelo, 2000). This theory of learning maintains that learning occurs most readily when new information is acquired in a relevant context (Gillani, 2000; Ross and Schultz, 1999). “Constructivist” learning is based on a model whereby students are engaged through integrated and analytical approaches (Duffy and Cunningham, 2000)
    Within more specialized topic areas such as “agroecosystems analysis,” many students have limited prior experiences through which to construct meaning and relevance. Thus, we see value in having students approach this topic through a “reality-rich” venue using an “experience that leads to critical reflection which leads to personal change” educational model characteristic of “transformational learning” (Mezirow, 1991; Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).

    Our goal is to bring students to a deep, comprehensive understanding of agroecosystems, but to do so in a way that allows them to see relevance and application for the concepts and information they are learning. Field-, immersion- and experiential-concept courses seem to be an ideal way to achieve this goal.

    Our approach is designed to engage students over an extended period of time, as a “community” of learners, to undertake and debrief experiences on a number of purposefully-selected farms–including in-depth interviews of the farmers–as well as to visit other sites of social, historical or ecological significance that are important for understanding agroecosystems in a holistic way. Field-based, highly experiential courses are something like participating in a “feast.” One must develop a structure and discipline that assures adequate intellectual ingestion and digestion to assure that learners are not overwhelmed or “satiated” by the richness of the experience itself. Providing ample opportunities and venues for “preflection” (Falk, 1995) and reflection before, during and after the experience is important when approaching this challenge (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).

    Finally, evaluation and assessment of student learning and ‘well-being’ during the experience, both orally and in writing, is crucial (Davis, 1993).

    Literature Citations:
    Angelo, T. A. 2000. Transforming departments into productive learning communities.: Seven transformative ideas. Pp. 76-80. In A. F. Lucas et al. (eds.) Leading academic change:

    Essential roles for department chairs. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

    Davis, B. G. 1993. Tools for teaching. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco. Dewey, J. 1938. Experience and education. Collier Books, New York.

    Duffy, T. M., and D. J. Cunningham. 1996. Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In D. Johnassen (ed.) Handbook of research for educational communications and technology. Macmillan Library Reference, New York.

    Falk, D. 1995. Preflection. A strategy for enhancing reflection. NSEE Quarterly, 13 (Winter).

    Gillani, B.B. 2000. Using the web to create student-centered curriculum. In Robert A. Cole (ed.) Issues in Web-Based Pedagogy: A Critical Primer. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.

    McKeachie, W. J. 1999. Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

    Merriam, S. B., and R. S. Caffarella. 1999. Learning in adulthood: a comprehensive guide. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

    Mezirow, J. 1991. Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

    Ross, J. L. and R. A. Schulz. 1999. Using the world wide web to accommodate learning style diversity in the college classroom. College Teaching 47: 4.

    Vietor, D., H. H. John, P. B. Thompson, and H. O. Kunkel. 1996. Higher education in agriculture: the setting and the need for change. pp. 6-16 In H. O. Kunkle, I. L. Maw, and C. L. Skaggs (eds.) Revolutionizing higher education in agriculture. Iowa State University Press. Ames, IA.

    Project objectives:

    • Train 54 students from several institutions, both land-grant and private, from the Midwest and other regions

      Increase students’ understanding of present Midwestern landscapes and their utilization by humans, in the context of history, landscape, and culture

      Increase students’ understanding that farms are a part of an agroecosystem

      Raise students’ awareness of farming systems that are different from the norm in their region
      Help students develop appropriate, multiple indicators of sustainability; require students to critically analyze several different farming systems, utilizing their indicators of sustainability

      Develop students’ ability to work in groups
      Encourage students to take a more active role in their responsibility for learning

      Increase awareness of instructors from other institutions about interactive learning activities within agroecology and agricultural production

      Encourage instructors who have participated in the summer field course to adopt interactive learning in their other courses, use farmers as instructors in their courses, and/or become instructors

    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.