Field Lesson:

Selena Ahmed, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems,
The Food and Health Lab, Montana State University

Integrating Research, Learning, and Community Engagement on Student Farms to Address Locally-Relevant Food System Challenges and Build Student Capacity 

As the need to reform the current dominant food system becomes more pressing, it becomes increasingly clear that we must train students with the capacity to lead societal transitions towards a more sustainable food system. Thinking about how we can best equip students to initiate and lead sustainability transitions in the food system points to the need to integrate research, learning, and community engagement. While faculty research has long contributed to advancing existing knowledge, theory, and practice, there is often a disconnect between faculty research and student learning. At the same time, there is often a disconnect between classroom learning and our surroundings including challenges in our communities.

Bridging education and research through farm-based authentic research modules in sustainability sciences (FARMS). Farm-based Authentic Research Modules in Sustainability Sciences (FARMS) present opportunities to bridge faculty research focused on identifying sustainability solutions with undergraduate learning through course-based primary research implemented at student university-based farms. Ultimately, this bridge seeks to build student capacity to lead sustainability transitions using an evidence-based approach. Note: This image was created using an open source stock image from Fotosearch. Source: DOI:

Farm-based Authentic Research Modules in Sustainability Sciences (FARMS) is an integrative experiential learning and primary research model for undergraduate sustainable agriculture and food systems education (SAFSE) that seeks to address the aforementioned disconnects while building student capacity to lead sustainability transitions. The FARMS model grew out of the Authentic Research Modules in Sciences (ARMS) model that I was trained on as a NSF Graduate Teaching Fellow in K-12 Education Program (NSF GK-12) at the City University of New York over a decade ago.

The ARMS pedagogical strategy was originally designed to facilitate graduate students to develop skills as educators while bringing primary research into the high school classroom and enhancing research resources for New York City public schools. The ARMS model attempted to overcome the cognitive and experiential gap between classroom learning content and students’ daily lives through place-based research projects in students’ neighborhoods on locally relevant topics to which students can more easily connect.

The FARMS model builds on the integrated experiential learning and primary research model of ARMS by offering hands-on, place-based, investigative opportunities on locally relevant food system topics designed to enable students to think and work like scientists. At the heart of the FARMS model are the following overall objectives: (1) to provide opportunities to apply SAFSE concepts in an agricultural setting, (2) to facilitate educators, students, and agricultural stakeholders to co-construct knowledge through identifying evidence-based sustainability solutions for food system challenges and, (3) to develop students’ research skills, critical thinking, collaborative ability, and motivation in leading sustainability transitions.

FARMS-based courses focus on locally-relevant agricultural research needs through stakeholder engagement. Specifically, community needs assessments are carried out during focus group workshops with local and regional agricultural producers to identify and prioritize food system challenges and opportunities to be addressed through research projects. FARMS are implemented at student university-based farms and serve to enhance the links between these learning spaces with academic departments through research and educational programming. The adoption of FARMS at student farms can help rationalize and improve support of these spaces.

I pilot-tested the FARMS model as part of an Ecological Agriculture course at Dartmouth College. My reflection of this experience demonstrated that this integrated teaching, research, and community engagement model fits the learning outcomes of a SAFSE Signature Pedagogy. It was an honor working with a group of students from this course to evaluate the implementation of FARMS and to disseminate this model for other educators to adapt through a publication in the New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems Forum in the journal Elementa.
Read the full article on FARMS titled “Building student capacity to lead sustainability transitions in the food system through farm-based authentic research modules in sustainability sciences (FARMS)

I am currently collaborating with faculty of the Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Program at Montana State University and the Open & Local Coalition of agricultural stakeholders to implement the FARMS model in southwest Montana. I look forward to sharing a field lesson or two from this experience!


Instagram: @msufoodandhealthlab

Funding: Funding for the work was provided by: NSF RII Track-2 FEC OIA 1632810; NSF CNH BCS-1313775; Montana State University College of Education, Health and Human Development Seed Fund


  1. Ahmed, S.; Sclafani, A.; Aquino, E.; Kala, S.; Barias, L.; Eeg, J. 2017. Building Student Capacity to Lead Sustainability Transitions in the Food System through Farm-based Authentic Research Modules in Sustainability Sciences (FARMS). Elementa Science of the Anthropocene 5: 46 (DOI:
  2. Valley, W.; Wittman, H.; Jordan, N.; Ahmed, S.; Galt, R. 2017. An Emerging Signature Pedagogy for Sustainable Food Systems Education. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 1-14 (DOI:
Dartmouth Organic Student Farm. The FARMS model was implemented at the Dartmouth Organic Farm of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The study site is located in USDA plant hardiness zone 5A. The production field is located on a flood plain adjacent to the Connecticut River with open grass fields in the immediate surroundings and nestled within a diverse temperate forest. The primary agroecological management practice of the organic-certified production field is annual crop rotation comprising of five botanical families. SOURCE: DOI: