CAPSTONE: Feeding 9 billion through sustainable farm design (1 of 3)

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By the end of the first part of the Food CAPSTONE experience, student will be able to 1) identify broad human needs that are unmet by the current global food system and 2) define specific problems that, if solved, would meet the food needs of the growing global human population.

Big Idea

The human population will approach 9 billion by 2050, but our current food system was not designed to sustainably feed so many. How might we apply our understanding of agricultural methods to feed 9 billion people in an environmentally sustainable manner?

FRAME: How might we sustainably feed 9 billion people?

Throughout this unit, students have developed presentations skills, conducted fieldwork, honed engineering design thinking abilities, engaged with simulations and models, created implementable solutions to real-world problems, calculated environmental impact, developed conceptual knowledge of soil and the nitrogen cycle, advocated for change within communities, and evaluated agricultural technology. Along the way, students developed many answers to the essential question for this unit: How do our food choices help or hurt the planet?  For the Food CAPSTONE project, students will take on one final, immensely important design challenge.  How might we sustainably feed a world of 9 billion people?

At current rates of growth, the human population is likely to reach 9 billion by the middle of this century.  In terms of environmental impact, existing food systems are already inadequate.  Food systems that strain the environment are like global climate change; the threat they pose is imminent, but incremental and largely invisible.  At such, the problem is easy to ignore, and difficult to understand.  However, as students have learned from their study of food transportation systems, the environmental impact of gentrification, community food resources, food labels, soil, the nitrogen cycle, and agricultural technology, current methods of food production and distribution impose costs on the environment and human communities.  This CAPSTONE project challenges students to apply their developed understanding of humans' complex relationship with food to the problem of feeding more people in a more sustainable way.  How might we use our STEM toolkit to do something about these problems? 

For this CAPSTONE, students will follow the engineering design thinking framework that we developed during our Unit 0 and have continued to apply throughout the school year.  Specifically, students will work in collaborative teams to meet the following objectives:

  1. identify broad human needs that are unmet by the current global food system

  2. define specific problems that, if solved, would meet human needs

  3. explain constraints impacting potential solutions to problems posed by the global food system and ideate solutions

  4. design a prototype sustainable farm as a solution to specific problems

  5. give and receive feedback that improves prototypes through iteration

  6. present a final solution idea to an outside panel of students, teachers, and community professionals

This work is an iteration of the Population Unit CAPSTONE; it takes a similar form and was designed from the same project based learning (PBL) framework.  The Food Unit CAPSTONE is different in that it is more closely aligned with the engineering design framework and emphasizes prototype development in addition to public presentation and iteration. The Food Unit CAPSTONE is essentially a practice run for the Course CAPSTONE that students take on as their final learning experience at the end of the course.

The three "lessons" for the Food CAPSTONE correspond to three stages of the engineering design thinking framework: 1) empathizing and defining; 2) ideating and prototyping; and 3) testing (presenting) and iterating.

This first lesson is "Stage One" (Approximate time is two class periods)

During Stage One students learn about the requirements for the CAPSTONE project.  Then students choose work teams, develop empathy for humans affected by the global food system, and define problems to be solved.  Students end this stage by collaborating with each other through unconferences. Relevant objectives for Stage One are: 

  1. identify broad human needs that are unmet by the current global food system

  2. define specific problems that, if solved, would meet human needs

By the end of Stage 1, students should be able to clearly state a problem that might be solved in order to bring us closer to sustainably feeding 9 billion people by 2050.

RESOURCE NOTE:  There are two attached resources.  

  1. The first is a prototype activity guide that might be modified by teachers for classroom use.  It contains a number of resources used to support students with this CAPSTONE.  
  2. The second is a prototypes rubric used to evaluate this project.  

COLLABORATION NOTE: I owe a special thanks to my colleagues Scott Larsen (here he is in Wall Street Journal article about blended learning) and Katie McCarthy for collaboration on this work. 

EMPATHY: From Farm to Fork

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students develop a human-centered context for the need to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050.  

What will students do?

First, students learn about a National Geographic project called the “Future of Food.”  The whole class watches a short, descriptive clip two times.  Students then individually answer these questions:

  • What is a human need that the National Geographic project wants to explore?  
  • What obstacles exist to meeting this need? (Pro-tip:What problem, if solved, would improve human life according to National Geographic?)

Next, students explore the Twitter feed for #FutureofFood to flesh out their responses.  Students' goal should be to gather two pieces of evidence to support their ideas about the human need that National Geographic explores.

Finally, students will share ideas in small groups and then the whole class will discuss findings.

What will teachers do?

The teacher frames the CAPSTONE project and then facilitates the watching and discussion.  The most important teacher move for this activity will be supporting students' investigations of #FutureofFood.  If students are unfamiliar with Twitter as a research tool, teachers will want to model how to use the #FutureofFood feed to gather relevant evidence.  Additionally, the clip used is short but dense.  There are many ideas that students might capture in their notes; however, because of the length of the clip, many students might think that there is not much there.  A second teacher move, then, is to debrief the clip before transitioning into Twitter research.  When students have a few clear ideas of the needs that the National Geographic project intends to explore, they are more able to persist with the open-ended Twitter research.

What is the ideal outcome of this section?

By the end of this section, students should be able to explain at least one human need that might be met through a redesign of the global food system.  This need might be hunger, or healthy society, or access to food, or protection for farmers, and so forth.  Whatever the need, it is important that students have successfully identified evidence from #FutureofFood to support their claims about the human need that National Geographic explores. 

DEFINE: What is the problem

55 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students define a problem to be solved that relates to the need identified in the EMPATHY section.  The open-ended, student-centered process of problem definition pushes students to collaborate with each other, persist with difficult tasks, and conduct probing research.  The teacher has an opportunity to support both students' interests and academic needs. These needs will include lagging skills as well as unmet social and emotional needs, especially given the intensely collaborative nature of this project. Specifically, students will most have have difficulty choosing a learning pathway matching their research interests and students will have difficulty effectively collaborating with peers.  The teacher will support students' success with both of these tasks.

What will students do?

Students will conducted open-ended analysis of research resources with the goal of identify a problem to be solved for this CAPSTONE.  This work will be done in student research teams.  Because of the intensely collaborative nature of this work, teachers are advised to group students according to fit using whatever criteria meets the needs of students.  Students should only be allowed to choose teams if they have demonstrated the ability to choose peer groups that function as effective collaborative teams.  

Once students are in teams, they have the options of working through teacher curated tasks or developing their own learning pathway.  The prototype activity guide contains a few resources that students might use for work. These tasks are:

  • TASK 1:  Why does soil matter?  Check out Let’s Talk About Soil.  Why is it important to protect soil from degradation?
  • TASK 2:  What pressures do family farmers face?  See this presentation for ideas.
  • TASK 3: Why are people hungry?  Check out this interactive.
  • TASK 4: What are some obstacles that we face in attempting to redesign the global food system so that it might feed 9 billion?  Why are these problems?  Cite THREE problems, including evidence from the interactive.
  • TASK 5:  What is the problem? What is the need to be met?  What is the “how might we” question we can ask? (Pro-tip: Research your design thinking work from the beginning of the year.)

What will teachers do?

The problem definition stage will be a frenetic time for teachers.  Individual students and student groups will require a wide range of supports.  Teachers need to have a solid understanding of the needs that student subgroups have within each class.  Which students will need graphic organizers to support research? Which students have trouble using technology?  Which students are unable to make meaning of complex texts? Which students might need language support (translations, dictionaries)?  Which students need to talk about their understanding?  Which students are easily distracted by noise?  Which students will want to create their own learning pathway?  This is an enormous amount of information to manage.  One strategy for keeping everything together is to curate research pathways that meet all of these needs at some point.  The tasks above are certainly not perfect or comprehensive, but they cover a range of student needs and help me manage a classroom of diverse learners while meeting students' actual needs.

Additionally, the most important teacher move to make while circulating during this research process is to consistently ask students to connect research to a potential problem statement.  Students can get lost in details; the teacher needs to pull the student back to the purpose of this activity.

What is the ideal outcome of this section?

Students should be able to define a problem statement or ask a "how might we question" that connects to the needs explored in the EMPATHY section.  This need should emerge from a collaborative understanding of research.  Students should not engage with all of the tasks from this activity.  But they should engage with enough to have productive conversations with peers that lead to problem statements.  Some examples of the this outcomes are attached in the RESOURCES section as classroom pictures.  


35 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students participate in unconferences in order to collaboratively share and iterate on the problem statements from the DEFINE stage.  The teacher is able to participate in authentic, informal conversations with students and support students' collaborative efforts through modeling and facilitation.

What will students do?

The reflection section has a number of resources that describe unconferences in detail.  Essentially, these are time-bounded opportunities for small groups of students to informally exchange ideas through a semi-structured speaking format.  

First, student volunteers will propose a theme for an unconference.  These themes will come directly from the problem definitions.  I am interested in exploring food scarcity.  I want to talk about soil degradation.  I think rooftop farming is the future and I want to share my ideas.  Ideally, at least four students will volunteer a topic. 

Next, students attend two unconference session, each lasting for 15 minutes.  These unconference session should be conversations.  The goal is to share ideas about the topic and possibly develop new problem statements. 

Finally, students share out any ideas or insights that they found to be valuable.

What will teachers do?

The teacher will need explain the uncoference, and possible model the format with students.  Showing one of the videos from the reflection might be a good strategy to norm understanding of this work.  The teacher should also move from group to group and participate in as many conversations as possible.  Of course, students may not have the skills of social comfort to have open conversations.  Teachers will need to assess the abilities of the classroom group prior to this activity.  Unconferences will not be successful if students lack the requisite conversation skills.

What is the ideal outcome of this section?

Students will participate in two conversations about topics related to problems of the current food system and come away with deeper understanding and better problem statements.