Theresa Moran and Art Trese: Experiential Learning on the OHIO Student Farm By Emily Baxstrom

May 2019

Experiential learning has become a priority at Ohio University since President Nellis named the creation of an engagement ecosystem one of his strategic pathways in 2017. Faculty have been connecting their students with community initiatives and needs by structuring their courses with more reflection on doing. Experiential learning enables students to develop knowledge and skills through the practice of, analysis of, and reflection on activity.

In regard to pedagogy, Art Trese, associate professor in environmental and plant biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, focuses on one particular philosophy of experiential learning: that the human brain and human experience have always been one-hundred percent experiential learning. “Anything you learn to do is learned by watching and then doing,” said Trese. “Every question you have that comes to mind, you ask someone and they explain how it works. We’re trying to insert a little bit of our natural learning capacity or style into the classroom.”

Theresa Moran, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Food Studies director, and Sustainable Living Hub coordinator, emphasized one of the main facets of experiential learning is that it’s about the whole of one’s life—it’s not just what is inside the four walls of the classroom during students’ time in college. “The heart of experiential learning is that it’s an attempt to provide strategies and experience that the student will learn and continue to learn from and apply long after we’re gone. It’s that entire wholistic ecosystem of learning. Modestly, yes, it’s going to change your life,” said Moran.

One way that Moran has incorporated experiential learning is in her course CAS 2411, "Food Matters: Explorations in Food Across the Liberal Arts," the foundational course in the Food and Society Certificate. Moran first incorporated this pedagogical approach in her teaching six years ago when she started teaching junior composition courses for the Department of English. When covering comparatives and discernment, she has her students do taste tests of different local foods. She brings in different brands of milk (including Snowville and Broughton) or different types of bread (Village Bakery vs. Wonder Bread) and has the students taste each one. “It’s fascinating to have the students describe why they felt the way they did about a taste sensation,” Moran said. “It prompts a real engagement with expression and communication—I have to listen to what they say and they have to write it and explain it to me so that I understand. Which is also a great listening opportunity for me as the professor.”

Theresa Moran helps sell produce from the OHIO Student Farm at a market in Grover Center.

Moran emphasizes that the changing discourse around experiential learning pedagogy is that it’s not at students, it’s with students. “We have to be in it together, it’s not just ‘give it to the student,’” she said. “Developing courses with experiential learning takes time and instructors really do need to think about ways to assess and deal with class management. It’s a challenging way of teaching, and I think in many ways it can be the most rewarding.”

Trese designs his sustainable agriculture course around activities students are already familiar with, such as fabric and food. Students experience learning through creating something and watching it develop—much of which is done through the OHIO Student Farm. As opposed to a field trip in which students simply observe, the farm encompasses multiple levels of thinking and physical engagement.

“My experience with the Food Studies faculty was one of the utmost care, challenge and nurturing. Even as I reflect now, working in administration at Northern Arizona University, I realize how incredibly unique the culture and community was that Food Studies fostered for the students, faculty and staff. This was accomplished in such a large part through the OHIO Student Farm and the doors that opened in students’ lives, as well as the relationships with the Athens community that were grown and maintained.” —Anna Chelboun, '16, BSS in Food Studies, Religion, Dance, and Psychology


The OHIO Student Farm is the “spiritual home” of the Food Studies program, and a prime example of experiential learning in action. Encompassing around one-and-a-half acres, it comprises student gardens, a tunnel for year-round growing, and field plots. Both students and faculty have a spring-summer garden as well as an extensive fall garden. While the land mostly produces vegetables, it also grows small grains; perennials such as grapes, hops, rhubarb, bamboo, and more; and herbs and medicinal plants for teaching use.

Some of the produce grown and harvested on the OHIO Student Farm includes a variety of peas, beans, radishes, and swiss chard.

The farm supplies a student-run produce market business, run by undergraduate Food Studies interns from multiple colleges. A plant biology graduate student assists in the management of the market sales under the direction of Trese, and volunteers from the Food Matters student club also help out, as do other clubs across campus. There are full-time summer interns and part-time academic interns, four work-study positions, one PACE position, and one graduate student position (which keeps the farm running). Along with Trese's Sustainable Agriculture courses, classes in nutrition, Food Studies, and more also use the farm for projects in sustainability and service-learning.

But production is not the only side of the farm—there also is a (non-profit) student-run business side. Revenue from the market sales support Food Studies summer interns, Global Opportunities' Study Away scholarships, and material for the farm. Students are able to learn hands-on business experience through on-site produce sales, selling the produce to Jefferson Market, the Atrium Café, Culinary Services, and farmers market events. Fresh produce also is donated to the Cat’s Cupboard (OHIO student food pantry). Students from the College of Business, College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Health Sciences and Professions, and University College have all come together to learn things like meeting customer demand, opening and closing operations, and more.

“The OHIO Student Farm and the Food Studies program were the most influential components of my academic career at Ohio University. The various Food Studies courses I took were all among my favorite courses I took at OHIO, and they ranged across disciplines and topics. I was able to gain real world experience working as the manager of the OHIO Student Farm Produce Sale, which also helped me receive summer internship opportunities, where I then could apply what I learned from Food Studies courses to a real job experience. Upon graduating from Ohio University, because of Food Studies, I am staying in Athens for an additional year to serve with a local nonprofit, Rural Action, and am excited to continue my interest in food studies through community work and hands-on experience.” —Rachel McDonald, ’19, Global Studies-Europe Major, Food and Society Certificate


The OHIO Student Farm specializes in a small-scale, diversified, organic production, which demonstrates to students that producing food can be repetitious and has been an everyday part of human history. “People used to spend hours of their day doing something and letting their mind wander,” said Trese.

He believes it’s important for students to see the breadth of what food production is. It’s not simply pulling weeds out of the ground with your hands; it involves planning, risk-taking, prioritizing, managing staff, having an optimized supply chain, and more, all while working in a high-risk environment with an unknown market. “We may often think that working in agriculture is something that’s a good fit for people who are academically challenged, but it’s just the opposite,” said Trese.

Over the years, Trese has taught courses both with and without lab components. Students in courses with labs remembered much more years later than did the students in the lecture-only courses. His favorite thing about using experiential learning pedagogy is that he is having a constant conversation with his students.

“Maybe this sounds silly, but it’s like working with children,” said Trese. “Even though our students are grown up, when all of us learn something new from somebody, we kind of revert back to that role of a kid—‘show me how you did that, okay I’ll try it. Did I do it right? No, okay I need to try it again, and again.’ That’s part of the joy—it’s the same joy that’s part of being a parent watching your child grow.”

Trese calls experiential learning opportunities to learn, as opposed to packaged learning. He doesn’t have a set plan to go outside and show his students five insects and have them compare and contrast those insects. He teaches as topics emerge—as students find new things and ask questions. If students can connect new information with familiar subjects, it’s more likely to be absorbed. “If you’ve tried to give someone information and it doesn’t have a place in their brain, it’s unlikely to stay there,” he added. “But if you can connect it to something they’re already familiar with, you’ve just added something to that little part of their brain for good.”

“Students in the College of Arts and Sciences’ STEMstart summer program visited the OHIO Student Farm in 2018. My strongest memory of this field trip was the students actually digging potatoes out of the field; several of the students mentioned they had no idea this was how potatoes were grown and harvested. Due to the disconnect of many young people to the production of food in today's world, I think this opportunity for Ohio University students to learn about where their food comes, is very very important.” —Stephanie Miller, lecturer in biological sciences and STEMstart co-director in the College of Arts and Sciences

Trese recalled an instance when a student brought him something they found in the dirt and asked him what it was. He explained it was a beetle grub, which is the larval stage before the insect becomes a beetle. “It’s like having a third-grader with you who’s so excited and wants to show their friends what they just learned,” he said. “They’re college students who’ve never asked themselves where beetles come from.”

Moran considers part of her job to be getting students to love doing what they’re doing with the farm and to reflect on it. “This includes both food and eating. Students are already experts in this thing called food, so now we want them to apply critical thinking and realize this expertise is not just about them personally,” she said. “It’s also about our society, our nation, our globe, our planet’s future, and all of that is based on what you put in your mouth.”

The high tunnel helps extend the growing season for a variety of produce on the OHIO Student Farm.

Moran recalled a particularly impactful interaction she had with a student who was harvesting potatoes on the farm. One of the potatoes was rotten from some kind of blight. Moran challenged the student to imagine that’s all they had to eat for the day—they just pulled up that potato and now they’re not going to be able to eat. “The student will never forget that. She had her hands in the dirt and was holding this rotten vegetable that had goo running out of it and said ‘this is all I can eat? For the whole day?’” said Moran. When this type of opportunity arises, Moran added the topic can shift—for example, to history, including the Irish Potato Famine, which can then expand to the migration patterns in the United States and the Great Dust Bowl when there was a food shortage. She prompts her students with “What are you going to do?” “We’re trying to make sure students understand that to have food, we have to participate in a different way of producing it and certainly a different way of looking at it,” she said.

Trese also has worked with students from Christine Zacharich’s nutrition course on the farm. In spring 2019, they were assigned to take a two-hour tour of the student farm and complete some service learning. This gave Trese a chance to discuss his content with students in a different light; nutrition students study ways to heal the sick through diet and food, which Trese ties into where that food comes from and how that also impacts its contents and flavor. He teaches them information beyond the dietary prescriptions—for example, he has them taste a single beet leaf. When he asks them what it tastes like, many are uncertain, but when he prompts them by saying “does it taste both sweet and a little salty?” they engage in more critical thinking.

“As a business intern, I help with all sales work, inventory, counting money, graphs, and record-keeping. It’s cool to get a feel for the farming community of Athens. We have to go to the farmers market and talk with them as part of our internship.” —Richard Knowlton, ’19, Entrepreneurial Geography


A multitude of departments and colleges across the University are involved with the farm, including the Department of Nutrition; Applied Health and Wellness; Patton College of Education; Restaurant, Hotel, and Tourism; the College of Arts and Sciences; Division of Student Affairs; and the College of Business. Foreign delegates also visit the farm periodically, which is presented as unique to the American Higher Education system by utilizing experiential education. There is also a connection between the OHIO Student Farm and Community Food Initiatives, which is a Southeast Ohio organization that works to ensure everyone has access to healthy, local food.

Both Moran and Art would like to see a University commitment to the OHIO Student Farm that would provide a way to keep the student produce side growing and expanding, especially with increasing demand from Culinary Services, which potentially provides a great revenue stream. Supporting a new position for a farm manager would ensure the farm's sustainability—the farm manager would be responsible for the managerial work done thus far by Trese, as well as market the farm and identify new potential customers.

“We’ve grown so much that we need managerial support, and that support must have the hands-in-the-ground experience,” said Moran. “This would allow Food Studies to continue to use and actually grow that food productionexperience for the students.”

Theresa Moran walks foreign delegates through the OHIO Student Farm, demonstrating the benefits students reap from the experiential learning.

Peer institutions have student farms similar to OHIO's—they are used with associated courses and learning opportunities (e.g., Student Farm at Penn State). Students in the College of Business collected a list of these institutions and analyzed what other colleges are doing; many of them have a farm manager running day-to-day operations.

“The farm is of value to the whole University, not to mention the fact that our peer institutions also have student farms that are used more or less in the same way that we do, with associated courses, etc.” added Moran. “We have successful student-run market business and a growing demand for student-grown produce. We've been supporting it thus far with Art's incredible commitment, student labor, and one-time funding from the College of Arts and Sciences, but it’s going to die if someone doesn’t step in and help it. The farm can't be here for free anymore.”

“I cannot say enough about the rich educational experience the OHIO Student Farm brings to the students involved. From learning basic botanical facts, to those that pertain to agricultural processes, commercialization, communication and dissemination.” —Claudia Gonzales-Vallejo, professor of psychology and affiliated faculty of Latin American Studies in the Department of Psychology

For those interested in experiential learning and the OHIO Student Farm, you may reach out to Art Trese or Theresa Moran.

About The Office of Instructional Innovation

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of innovative instructional models that fulfill the University’s promise of a transformative educational experience. OII provides a variety of services to faculty, staff, and students in support of academic units and online programs, as well as to advance initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.

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