Michigan State University introduces class focused on fighting food waste

Instructors from the Michigan State University (MSU) colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Arts and Letters are bringing science and the humanities together by looking at food waste in an interactive way.

Instructors from the Michigan State University (MSU) colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Arts and Letters are bringing science and the humanities together by looking at food waste in an interactive way.

A new Michigan State University (MSU) course on food waste is in a class all its own.

Sandra Logan and Dana Kirk’s Integrated Arts and Humanities (IAH) and Integrative Studies in Biological Science (ISB) “The Food Waste Challenge: Opportunities and Innovations” gives undergraduate students freedom and flexibility to examine the impact of wasted food through scientific and societal perspectives.

The course started as a pilot for in spring 2019 and is the first IAH and ISB combination offered at Michigan State.

“Science and the humanities both share fundamental agendas,”said Logan, associate professor of English in the College of Arts and Letters (CAL), and also the director of CAL’s Citizen Scholars program, which prepares students to be engaged leaders in today’s interconnected world. “Both teach analytical techniques. Both encourage students to do research. Both involve interpreting data: In the sciences, it’s often numerical data, and in the humanities, it’s often linguistic, representational or cultural.”

"Science and the humanities both share fundamental agendas."Sandra Logan, Director, MSU College of Arts and Letters Citizen Scholars program

Kirk, manager of MSU’s Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center and assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, sees the real-word importance in partnering with Logan to teach students about food waste from technical and societal perspectives.

“I’m on the technical side,” he said, “but I also realize that if people don’t understand what the problem is, and if people don’t understand what the solutions are, the technology isn’t going to get used.”

From concept to class

Logan came up with the idea for the course after becoming interested in anaerobic digestion, the process of breaking down organic material, like food waste, in a tank without oxygen. 

She contacted Kirk, who oversees operations for the south campus anaerobic digester, the largest anaerobic digester on a college campus in the U.S.  Logan and Kirk developed the course in collaboration with the  MSU Hub for Innovation and Learning and Technology and CAL.

“It’s very student-driven learning,” said Logan. “We give them a framework to operate in, but then we ask them to do research to help fill that framework out.”

Community and campus connections

Students in the class plan events to educate the MSU and East Lansing communities about the importance of reducing food waste. The first event, geared toward families, was held at the East Lansing Public Library on March 26. The second, for students and staff, was on April 10 at the MSU Rock.  

FoodWasteClassStudentShowingKid
Human biology sophomore Emily Hutchison demonstrates how to make banana bread during a March 26 event at the East Lansing Public Library to teach families about food waste.

The final event is scheduled for April 25 at the East Lansing Public Library and is focused on outreach to community leaders, with a goal of developing an action-oriented committee to reduce food waste in East Lansing and on MSU’s campus. To prepare, Kirk and Logan’s students are hosting an Our Table discussion with Food@MSU on April 23.

Because of the small class setting — there’s seven students in the class — students have had more opportunities to be creative and engage with their peers, instructors and community leaders.

“I’ve never had a class this small before,” said dietetics junior Ana Pike, who co-planned the March 26 event at the library. “Most of my classes have been hundreds of people. You really can voice your own opinion in a smaller class. It’s a different style of learning than what I would say most students are used to.”

FoodWasteClassMatchGameKids
Two boys play a food waste matching game developed by Kirk and Logan's students during the March 26 event at the East Lansing Public Library.

Kirk is excited to see students eager to learn about food waste, which he calls “the next evolution in recycling.”

“The energy they’ve brought has been tremendous,” he said. “They’re just really engaged in this topic. They’ve absorbed the technical parts of it, as well as figuring out how to communicate it.”

Taking action

The majority of the students in Kirk and Logan’s class are majoring in a field related to food science or health, but this class is their first exposure to the pervasive­ issue of wasted food. 

Americans waste one pound of food per person each day.
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Through gaining knowledge and brainstorming ways to share what they’ve learned with others, these students have started taking their own steps to reduce their “foodprint.”

“I’m actually caring about food waste now, because I actually know about it,” said human biology sophomore Emily Hutchison, who co-planned the March 26 event with Pike. “When you know what food waste is, you just stop. It hurts you almost.”


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