by Greg Teachout

From across the green expanse surrounding it, it’s hard to tell that there are cultural and political boundaries being crossed on the Student Organic Farm at MSU. The bucolic southern region of campus is dotted with barns and pastures; it’s an ideal scene for studying agricultural science, but not what most imagine as a place for bridging cultural divides. This may be, in fact, why the team behind one of MSU’s most innovative cross-disciplinary courses, NSC 292, has found such success — what seems to be a course about animal husbandry becomes a course in practical ethics. Crucially, success in NSC 292 means collaborating with others whose ethical convictions may be as different from one’s own as they are deeply held.

Even the name of the course hints at the layers it contains. What the Registrar’s Office calls NSC 292: Applications in Environmental Studies is known by participants as The Pig Project. In the Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation, where the course was developed under the former Hub Faculty Fellows Program, NSC 292’s title speaks to its purpose: Experiential Learning for Boundary Crossing.

On the surface, the class is about raising pigs. This includes everything from learning how to hold a pig to for proper vaccination to all-hours piglet feeding at the farm.

In order to be successful, NSC 292 students must work with peers who were enculturated in very different ways from themselves: students who grew up raising livestock on a farm work side by side with Environmental Studies majors who found the class through their passion for sustainability. Students from the suburbs or the city who have never had firsthand farm experience collaborate with those who grew up who know their way around a barn.

The mix of perspectives and backgrounds that gives the class its unique liveliness finds its double in NSC 292’s instructors themselves.

“I think that’s where a lot of this cool story resides,” says Laurie Thorp, who is the director of the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE) in the College of Natural Science. Thorp is a faculty member in the Department of Community Sustainability, and one of the founders of MSU’s Student Organic Farm. With a background in agricultural education, she affectionately describes her social and academic milieu as “granola and Birkenstock” -- a sharp contrast to the subcultural and vocational background of NSC 292’s co-instructor, animal science expert Professor Dale Rozeboom. “Dale’s students tend to come from the more traditional animal science, conventional production perspective. And our students come together around this project of raising pigs.”

A decade ago, Thorp and her team at the Student Organic Farm had chickens, but they were interested in bringing pigs to the farm as well. The main obstacle was that Thorp knew almost nothing about pig farming. She contacted Rozeboom, who is Associate Chair for Farm Operations and Stakeholder Relations in the Department of Animal Science and works through MSU Extension as a recognized expert on many aspects of pork nutrition and production.

“I had never raised pigs before,” says Thorp. “I knew nothing about swine production. I was concerned about swine welfare from stories I’d heard and things I’d read. I reached out to Dale. He came out and was just this incredibly gracious boundary crosser with this person he didn’t know who was teaching environmental studies. Dale was very kind and patient with me, who knew nothing about pigs. We walked the farm and he was already ‘different’ in my mind because he was so open and receptive. I was amazed that this person from a completely different world was so open to the idea of bringing pigs to the student organic farm.”

In time, the boundary crossing that marked the instructors’ first meeting would come to define the class.

“The last time we taught the class, we had five different colleges and twelve different majors represented in our student cohort,” says Rozeboom. “We intentionally tried to create this diversity of backgrounds and experiences. That melting pot creates the opportunity for us to teach deliberative and participatory skills.”

To teach those skills, Thorp and Rozeboom utilize the work of two environmental philosophy professors: Department of Philosophy Associate Professor Matt Ferkany and University of Michigan Professor Kyle Whyte.

“Ferkany and Whyte’s paper, ‘The Importance of Participatory Virtues in the Future of Environmental Education,’ has become an oft-cited publication about character development and the skills you need to engage in public participation, especially around contentious issues and wicked problems,” says Thorp. “We worked with Kyle Whyte briefly as well. We said to ourselves that if we were going to help solve some of these wicked problems, we need to be educating our students in skills like boundary crossing and epistemic humility.”

Articulating and measuring learning outcomes like epistemic humility can be challenging for instructors. Luckily, Rozeboom and Thorp had expert collaborators in the form of the Spartan Studios team, a project out of the Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation.

Dr. Ellie Louson is a learning designer in the Center and leads the Spartan Studios project, which she says is devoted to creating experiential interdisciplinary courses.

“Working with the Pig Project instructors was really a dream for the Spartan Studios project,” says Louson. “They had a wonderful longstanding partnership already. They had a sense that they wanted to bring that to fruition in a course. We were so thrilled to help them recruit more faculty for their course, as well.”

It was during the Pig Project’s gestation at the Center (formerly within the Hub for Innovation and Learning Technology) that the team drew on assessment expert Bill Heinrich’s deep knowledge of experiential learning assessment techniques. This resulted in some approaches to measuring learning outcomes for the class that were unfamiliar to the instructors — approaches that ultimately took the already unique experiential nature of the class to another level.

“It really helped us, too, to interact with Dale and Laurie,” says Louson. “Their feedback improved our pedagogical resources. We now have a refined play kit for experiential learning courses. It feeds back into opportunities other MSU educators will get to enjoy.”

The richness of this highly collaborative project makes an intuitive kind of sense to Thorp, who points out that great fertility occurs on the margins of ecosystems — even academic ones. “When there’s a real, shared responsibility, with high stakes, it creates an opportunity for students to have healthy shared dialogue around really important questions about life, about death, about ethical eating,” says Thorp. “And as a team, this beautiful, magical bond occurs between these students because they are out there at midnight with miner lights on as the sows begin to farrow. They are together, bringing new life into the world.”

“This has definitely been the absolute most rewarding experience I have ever had in a college course. I feel so lucky to have taken part in the class. I really appreciated the level of hands-on integration of the material we were learning in class. Thank you for exposing me to your teaching methods as I’ve only ever had classes where we were just in the classroom with our noses in a textbook.” – Nicole, NSC 292 student