Learning on the O-Farm, Remotely

This spring term was the first time teaching at Dartmouth for Theresa Ong, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies. "It's a pretty crazy one." 

Ong's ENVS 14 Sustainable Food Systems is an intro level course for Environmental Studies students. Originally the class was focused on discussion, but with the transition to remote she knew it would have to change in some ways. A lot of the materials covered in the class "are really controversial and everyone has different backgrounds and experiences with food systems. So a big part of [the course] is getting people to talk about those different opinions, and that's very hard to achieve in this online world. I had to come up with some creative solutions." She's done so through use of technology and a campus partnership with the Dartmouth Organic Farm.

Ong had her students create their own blogs through Dartmouth's Wordpress Journeys tool. They post each week on different topics and comment on each other's blogs. She says that they have really gotten into the project. Many faculty are choosing to use this tool in their remote term courses. Erin DeSilva, Assistant Director of the Learning, Design and Technology team, says, "A blog can create a space centered on one student's thoughts to which other students react."

Ong also posts pre-recorded lectures that students can access at any time and hosts optional discussion during their class time that students can either attend or watch a recording of later. In the synchronous discussions, she'll post a question via a Zoom Poll and then give the class the results. Students then form small groups in breakout rooms to discuss further and return back to the main Zoom room for a wrap-up. Ong utilizes her two undergraduate TAs to help facilitate conversations in the breakout rooms. The TAs are both seniors and they have even recorded mini-lectures about their own undergraduate theses.

"I wanted to work with the Organic Farm, especially, because the students are not on campus." Ong said, "They can't experience it firsthand and I thought it would be like a good reminder of Dartmouth and what is happening on the farm." 

Ong partnered with the Dartmouth Organic Farm through Rosi Kerr, Director of Sustainability at Dartmouth. Kerr says the O-Farm is finding ways to support and connect with courses including videos from the farm, offering office hours and consulting with students working on group projects. She has recorded lectures for ENVS 14 on the biofuel proposal and has partnered with architecture and biology courses as well.

For Ong's course, Molly McBride, Sustainability Fellow, and Laura Braasch, Program Manager, create mini video lectures about biodiversity on the farm, what they are dealing with as managers of the farm, how they use different sustainability practices on site and what's growing this spring. Their videos have been shot on a simple iPhone and edited on iMovie. Kerr says they are "a little bit fearless" about video production. "We are aware that our students are mostly watching TikTok, right? So I think, people used to feel like, "Oh, you gotta get a production crew and we've got to have the right microphone" — and we've learned that having a microphone would actually be really helpful, because the farm has horrible acoustics — but we are not afraid to do little things with our cellphones and I think that's a really freeing thing." 

Kerr says that in normal times the Dartmouth Organic Farm provides a space for decompression, creating physical experiences, and providing a shared environment that is "exclusive to no one and inclusive of everybody." While the students can't physically visit the space during remote learning, the course partnerships provide content that allows students to connect with Dartmouth as a place while seeing some of the concepts that they are learning about in action. "We are very cognizant of our role in supporting the mission of the college itself and the way that we do that is by helping students create the connection between what they're learning in the classroom and real world experience."

For the students in ENVS 14, Ong says, "It's interesting for them to see what's happening onsite, whether that's at the organic farm or through the biofuel proposal." It's safe to say that all parties look forward to the time when students can learn about these things on campus, but for now technology can help bridge the gap.