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Tufts University students gain first-hand experience in modeling and analysis methods

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Posted: October 25, 2014

A new course launched this spring at Tufts University offered students a first-hand look at the suite of sophisticated tools that scientists use to study food systems. Titled "Food Systems Modeling and Analysis," the course was designed to equip students with an understanding of the methods and data sources used to conduct various food systems models and analyses. Students also became acquainted with the major research findings that have resulted from the use of food system models to date.

The course was developed and taught by Christian Peters, an assistant professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who co-leads the EFSNE Education and Production Teams and also leads the project’s Scenarios and Modeling Team.

"Since arriving at Tufts, I have wanted to develop a course in my area of expertise. About 60 percent of the class focuses on approaches I have used first hand in my own research. The other 40 percent addresses methods that I have not used myself, but which are being used to study food systems," said Peters. "Preparing the class gave me a chance to reflect on where my own research fits in the broader field of food systems and to deepen my own knowledge of life cycle assessment, systems dynamics, and integrated modeling."

In developing much of the course content, Peters’ was able to draw on his own research experiences using and creating food system modeling and analysis tools. For example, the course began with an introduction to the "net balance" approach, which compares estimates of food consumption and food production in a given locale. Peters recently participated in a region-wide net balance study as part of an EFSNE-related initiative to estimate how self-reliant the Northeast U.S. is in meeting its needs for more than 100 food items. In class, Peters' students conducted a net balance study of their own, assessing New England's self-reliance for three food items, and getting hands-on experience using existing data sources to estimate an area's consumption and production.

As the course progressed, students were introduced to increasingly complex approaches that researchers use to answer fundamental food system questions. In addition to the net-balance approach, the class explored land requirements for various diets, carrying capacity modeling, "foodshed" modeling, life cycle assessments, and dynamic system models. Through course discussions and in-class exercises, students gained experience working in these frameworks and developed an understanding of the limitations of these various approaches.

"I am not aware of another course like Food Systems Modeling and Analysis. It was my first attempt to give structure to the diverse range of quantitative approaches used to study food systems that do not neatly fit in a preexisting discipline," Peters explained. "Students' evaluations of the course were overwhelmingly positive, but not wanting me to rest on my laurels, they offered some great suggestions to consider for future offerings. Indeed, I expect that this course will evolve every year. I plan to teach it again next spring."

This course is one of several initiatives that EFSNE Education Team members have implemented as part of their efforts to prepare students with the diverse skills needed to develop sustainable food systems.

More information about the activities of the EFSNE Education Team is available here.