This past fall, I was given the opportunity to assist in designing and teaching a one-credit laboratory course for called Growing Sustainably. This course, designed for undergraduate students in the Bachelors of Sustainability program, was meant to provide a hands-on, experiential exploration of Eden Hall while building on the students’ existing knowledge of agro-ecological principles.
Each week, the students explored different topics around growing sustainably by using Eden Hall’s many food production spaces as their subjects of examination, or “agro-ecosystems.” Beginning with the foundations of food production, we worked through the basics of soil science, doing a simple soil jar test to find out what type of soil (based on composition of sand, silt, and clay) we have in each of the spaces where we produce food on the Eden Hall campus. Then, we worked through soil test results from labs at University of Vermont and Penn State University, comparing the different agro-ecosystems, considering their historical usage, and the amendments and growing practices performed there throughout the past 4 years.
In order to understand the growing process, we also explored the concept of seed germination in the greenhouse. By setting up an experiment, in different teams that manipulated certain growing variables, such as light, moisture content, and seed position in growing substrate, the students were able to observe the results from this experiment and make comparisons to the controlled seed plates. This resulted in not only an understanding of the importance of these environmental growing conditions, but a first-hand experience of growing in a greenhouse and how these conditions may vary based on the micro-climate created in a greenhouse. For instance, tomato seedlings next to your tray of seeds may provide the proper shading you want, or may deter the germination process.
In proceeding labs, students read and studied different alternative certification programs and acts as third-party certifiers, walking around the campus making recommendations for our growing spaces. They also learned first hand about pest problems on the farm by setting up sticky card traps, using sweeping nets to catch and count pests, and observing crop damage in the solar high tunnel. Upon learning these scouting methods and pest identification and recording techniques, the group of students then researched and presented their proposed methods of integrated pest management that could support the different agro-ecosystems for seasons to come.
In the second half of the semester, students pulled together the foundational agro-ecological principles and growing sustainably practices learned about to address complex growing problems, such as water conservation, soil fertility, and enhancing plant-microbe and animal interactions. Through a series of observational studies, the lab class was able to identify where these positive interactions were happening and reasons for how the plantings or soil management might be aiding in these soil biological processes. They also were able to make recommendations for increasing the soil biota activity.
The engagement and true passion for sustainable systems that I saw from this group of students each week was encouraging and inspiring. I am grateful to have been a part of this lab course, and hope that it continues to give students a unique experience exploring the Eden Hall campus through its agro-ecosystems and through its evolving farm practices.