Inside Today’s Food Science Labs and Classrooms
Adaptations is an ongoing series of interviews with educators and administrators from around the world, representing diverse backgrounds, disciplines and institutions. These interviews examine how educational institutions are adapting to the ever-changing education landscape and how the built environment helps or hinders them in that effort.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
As part of this series, HDR sat down with Dr. Colleen O’Connor, associate professor and undergraduate coordinator for nutrition and dietetics in the School of Food & Nutritional Sciences at Brescia University College to discuss her experience with food science education and research over the years. Our interview captured Dr. O’Connor’s perspective on key themes like the shift to active learning, the importance of industry engagement and interdisciplinary collaboration in today’s educational landscape, and the value of current trends such as “science on display.”
Changes in How Students Learn
HDR: Food and nutritional sciences is a core offering of Brescia University College with over 50% of your students enrolled in the program. How has the program evolved over time?
Dr. Colleen O’Connor: I actually graduated from this very program almost 20 years ago, so I can speak to both sides of the experience. We have a much larger program than even ten years ago. Overall, the experience in the classroom has gone from being didactic to active and collaborative. Nutrition information is changing all the time. New trends are also emerging all the time. So it's our challenge — an exciting one — to stay on the cusp of that.
HDR: How has that shift from didactic to more collaborative and hands-on learning impacted your space needs?
Dr. O’Connor: It certainly requires using space a bit differently. In classrooms, it’s helpful to have chairs and desks that can move around and allow for groups to work together. It’s also vital to have the technology to come together and share what everyone is learning.
Labs have different challenges. Frequently, new technologies and regulations come out regarding laboratory equipment and space. Being able to house the equipment and to stay up-to-date with the technology is really important. On top of that, we need to have the space for experiments and, in food labs, space to prepare meals.
HDR: Ubiquitous use of phones and technology has fundamentally changed what we see as normative when it comes to learning. How has that impacted your program, both in the classroom as well as the labs?
Dr. O’Connor: Well, certainly students having access to the internet during class can be challenging, but I think it also brings a lot of benefits. For example, in the courses that I teach, if a question comes up and we don't know the answer, then we sort it out in real time. This gives students endless resources at their fingertips when they're doing, for example, a case study. In terms of the labs, using modern equipment that students would see in the workplace is beneficial. They're getting experience on equipment that they'll actually be using.
HDR: With all of the changes you have observed over time, do you see a change in how the how students interact with the learning environment?
Dr. O’Connor: Within the classroom, I would say it doesn't seem to have changed as much. But outside of the classroom, group work is now something that students can do from anywhere. You don't have to physically get together. You can create cloud-based documents that students can collaborate on no matter where they are. When they do collaborate in person, I notice that they aren’t necessarily choosing to do so in places like the library. They tend to find other spaces that are conducive to both socializing and group work.
HDR: This term that we often use is a “24/7 live and learn” lifestyle. Is that an observation that you have, where you're not sure whether the students are planning their next party or actually doing work, but they might be doing both?
Dr. O’Connor: Yep.
Shift towards Applied Learning
HDR: In recent years, we’ve seen undergraduate programs include research activities and applied learning earlier and earlier into their curriculum. Is that something you are seeing as well?
Dr. O’Connor: Yes, definitely. We provide more opportunities to bring in guest speakers who can talk about specific areas. When we can, we try to incorporate some sort of practicum type placement for students, where they can go out in the community and see the role from that lens.
HDR: Have you seen a trend towards more interdisciplinary science?
Dr. O’Connor: Nutrition is something that spans all areas of knowledge and research from psychology to history, so there's pretty much always a place for nutrition — recognizing the different views of nutrition, what food means to people, and how people interact with food. Approaching it from different disciplines can help broaden the view, rather than looking at it simply from the perspective of “Are you meeting your body's needs?”
For example, we have courses such as “Psychology of Eating,” “History of Eating,” and “Philosophy of Eating.” Courses like these really broaden the view of nutrition, and we have a lot of interest in them among our students. The number of elective courses has seen a significant change compared to even just ten years ago. I often say to students “If I could re-enter the program myself, this would be an interesting time because of all the opportunities that there are for students.” That’s true not only with our undergraduate program, but with our graduate program as well.
Lifelong Learning and the Value of Diverse Perspectives
HDR: How have both demographic changes in your student body as well as the emergence and importance of lifelong learning impacted the program?
Dr. O’Connor: Having students from around the world and from various stages in life really adds to the richness of the overall learning experience. As an instructor, I try to get a sense of where the students are at with their learning to try to make sure that no one is left out of the conversation and that there's something enriching for all the students regardless of their age or where they come from.
Industry and Community Collaboration
HDR: How do you collaborate with Western University and other institutions, whether they be competitor institutions or industry partners?
Dr. O’Connor: Brescia has a lot of collaborations within the community, within the province, throughout Canada, and even worldwide, which is very exciting. We've really benefited from collaborations with many companies and corporations. We've had students do internships for food companies here in Ontario, but also places like Ireland and the US. All of these opportunities provide valuable experiences for the students.
Those partnerships and collaborations are key. It takes a lot of time to create and nurture them, all while making sure it’s a mutually beneficial experience. Our food product development course is one example of this collaboration. For a handful of years the instructor would meet with an industry partner. For example, a company that distributes beef products. And students had to prepare new recipes and products based on health principles that they could incorporate into their products. The company benefited from having all of these recipes developed by students, and we benefited because we got to try them when they showcased them in the auditorium. I certainly see these collaborations as being something that could be done more often in the future.
Enriched Experiences through “Science on Display”
HDR: So with the design of the new food labs within the Academic Pavilion (scheduled to open later this year), one of the things that we talked about was “science on display,” or this idea that while some students are in the classroom actively learning or doing lab work, other students could potentially have passive exposure to the activities if transparency within the environment allowed for it. Do you see this as contributing to the learning environment?
Dr. O’Connor: Yes, I really like the science on display concept. This idea has the potential to excite people from other disciplines who might not ever set foot inside a food lab. Now they get to see what is happening. That generates conversations. "Oh, what kinds of foods do you cook?" or, "You cooked using cricket flour in this lab. What did that taste like?" I think it helps us to not stay in our silos at Brescia, to be more intermingled and have a sense of what the learning experience is like for other disciplines.
Our new Academic Pavilion is going to have some fabulous laboratory and classroom space and a lot of spaces for informal collaboration and getting together and being a community. And being a community is what Brescia is known for. I think anyone coming to our campus can sense that pretty quickly. Beyond that, I can't wait to use all the new technologies and the spaces and evolve how I teach based on what we're going to have available.