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Innovation in the Field

“EATS 101” Course Feeds Sustainability Venture

Dr. James G. Ferguson, who created this Innovative honors seminar about food and culture 13 years ago, still teaches the highly popular interactive and interdisciplinary course. Former student Elise Stephenson deemed it “unlike other courses at UNC, and fully funded by Dr. Ferguson, whose personal generosity and true passion for the topic of food encouraged each of us to engage to a degree that is well beyond the standard in undergraduate education.”

What Students Do
Class participants study of a range of local, national, and international food issues. Each week brings a significant amount of reading and writing on food-related topics, participation in an interactive seminar, and group work on various food projects. At the end of the semester, students submit a term paper on a food-related topic of their choice.

Why This Course Stands Out
Instead of progressing in a typical linear fashion, EATS 101 requires students to simultaneously learn all 10-12 topics covered. Students learn outside the traditional classroom setting through statewide and local field trips to grocery stores, markets, farms, restaurants, a commercial bakery, and a coffee roaster. The course explores sustainability through an additional credit hour (apart from the Tuesday night class). Stephenson said, “If given the opportunity to participate in EATS 101, there is no decision other than yes. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It is a time- and study-intensive commitment, but it is such valuable learning and the overall return is beyond worth it.”

When asked about the classroom environment, Stephenson noted, “I have never taken a course with such genuinely engaged discussion. Every student took the class very seriously, and our professor was so genuinely passionate about the topic, as well as generous and caring for his students. He hand-selected the class members from diverse backgrounds to create a dynamic room for camaraderie and discussion.”

When the Course Meets
Stephenson explained the course structure as, ”Unlike any other class that I took at Carolina!” The students meet twice a week for several hours at a time. During Stephenson’s term, they met on Tuesdays from 2-5pm and had a visiting lecturer speak on a particular topic (usually very interactive), followed by a walk to the professor’s home where the students networked with visiting lecturers and prepared a four-course meal that was enjoyed throughout the evening. Students had fairly extensive reading assignments that they had to complete by the weekend prior to the class and then write a 1-page reflection each week that was shared with all fifteen students in the class before the lecture – facilitating discussion and reflection. On Thursdays, the students had variable -ength class periods that often included meals at local restaurants or field trips. Three times during the semester Stephenson went on longer class retreats to areas with strong food presence and history. She said, “We spent a weekend in Asheville, a weekend in NYC, and a week in San Francisco, funded almost entirely by the personal resources of our professor.”

What the In-Class Experience is Like
When class is held at UNC, Ferguson is often assisted by professors in other, non-food specific departments from both UNC and other universities throughout the country, allowing students to learn from all different perspectives and teaching styles. The preparation and consumption of food is essential to learning about all topics covered in class, so weekly meals are prepared by both the instructor and students as part of the course curriculum.

How This Course is Distinguished by Conversation and Connection
Stephenson said the most important thing she learned from the course was, “The power of conversation and human connection as a discourse for education, advocacy, and personal development.” She would suggest the course to UNC students because, “EATS 101 provides the unique opportunity to study an incredibly important topic from diverse perspectives. Furthermore, unlike most courses which are primarily pedagogical, EATS is a dynamic balance of independent research, group discussion, and experiential education that has never been paralleled in my educational experience.”

Stephenson added, “I am currently finishing my last year of medical school and applying to psychiatry residency programs. I believe that EATS certainly influenced my ultimate decision to pursue psychiatry. While many different experiences opened my eyes to the importance of communication and human connection, EATS was a profound contributor.”

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