Professor of agronomy Randy Jackson teaches Agroecology 103 via recorded lecture at Arlington Agricultural Research Station, seen on a laptop photographed Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS.

Have you ever wondered, is organic food really worth the cost? Or pondered swapping out meat protein for plant protein, hoping it might yield some kind of benefit? Perhaps you’ve questioned whether we can find a way to feed 10 billion people by 2050 — and do it without harming the planet.

If so, you’re not alone: These are the conundrums students and instructors take on in Agroecology 103. But the answers are never easy.

“We set up vexing societal problems around food and agriculture and explore the solutions that have been enduring — considered more sustainable — and those that have not,” says course co-creator and co-instructor Randy Jackson, a professor of agronomy.

Agroecology: An introduction to the Ecology of Food and Agriculture teaches students to apply ecological principles to agricultural systems. They come away with an understanding of this overarching concept: that farms are ecosystems, and they exist within a broader landscape of social and ecological circumstances. The course has been popular from the start, with increasing enrollments since it was first offered in fall 2016.

In summer 2020, the instructional team overhauled the entire course experience as they prepared to offer it in an online-only format that fall. They poured a lot of energy into making the class as engaging as possible, meeting weekly in Madison’s Westmorland Park all summer long.

“We were planning for a virtual COVID semester at that point,” says course teaching assistant Ben Iuliano, a Ph.D. student in integrative biology. “We used it as an opportunity not just to convert to virtual but to really update the content and reorganize it in a lot of cool ways.”

For starters, the team decided to “flip” the classroom, dispensing with traditional lectures in favor of holding live group discussions and activities during class time. To make this work, they developed a variety of new course materials, including a series of videos created by Jackson and his co-faculty instructors, professors Michael Bell (community and environmental sociology) and Claudio Gratton (entomology).

The videos, often recorded in farm fields or prairie parcels, feature the professors explaining — or demonstrating — agroecological concepts. Some videos include interviews with other UW professors about topics related to their areas of expertise; a few feature more personal fare such as a bread recipe or a song.

“We tried to develop videos that would be fun and challenging,” says Jackson, “and that would provide good fodder for interesting discussions when we met online.”

Their efforts seem to have paid off, as the course received high praise from students.

“You guys really made an effort to connect with the students, and I appreciate that,” wrote one student in a course evaluation after the fall 2020 semester. “Thursday live sessions felt as close to real school as I have gotten this semester. Mike’s videos always made me smile, and the passion from everyone made me feel human again.”

Last fall’s students also worked on new pandemic-safe research projects, developed by Iuliano and his fellow teaching assistants. For a state-wide citizen science effort, they counted wild bees — at home or in a nearby park —and then analyzed data and wrote a short research paper. For another project, they interviewed food system workers and used the answers to explore a research question. Each student also participated in a civic engagement activity, such as volunteering for an organization.

UW–Madison entomology professor Claudio Gratton addresses students in Agroecology 103 on the first day of the, Sept. 9, 2021. Masks were required to be worn inside campus buildings at this time. Photo by Anders Gurda, UW–Madison Department of Plant Pathology.

Back to in person this fall, the course maintains the flipped classroom format as well as the new videos and other materials. It is open to students of all majors, with no prerequisites. And it will continue to be an excellent opportunity for students to learn problem-solving skills they can take with them beyond college.

“We try to give students the tools to investigate and answer [the big] questions for themselves and to have the basic knowledge of our agricultural and food systems in order to make more informed decisions” says Iuliano. “A lot of students are surprised by what they learn, and the course changes a lot of opinions in both directions.”