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5 Northwest Colleges Team Up To Offer Unique Course On Food Systems

Five small colleges across the Pacific Northwest are attempting to find ways to work together on projects they might not be able to pull off on their own.

The schools' most recent stab at collaboration: a food systems course that sent a class of college students traveling hundreds of miles across the region, tracing the region's food chain from its beginning — the fields and orchards of eastern Washington — to its very, very end.

The students' environment changes day to day. After watching combines comb wheat from an industrial-sized farm field in the Palouse the week before, 10 students from three of the colleges took their summer study of agriculture and food systems to the waste treatment plant in Tacoma that turns the city's biosolid waste into soils for lawns and gardens last Tuesday.

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Students from the Northwest Five Consortium's summer food systems course tour Tacoma's waste treatment plant. Using pasteurized wastewater byproducts called biosolids, the facility produces soils for lawns and gardens.

"There's a lot of, um, contrast in this program," said Hannah McCarthy, a 20-year-old junior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, after touring the facility.

This week, the landscape around McCarthy and her classmates will again be dramatically different. They'll be in the forest outside Salem, Oregon, studying small-scale agriculture.

The three-week food systems summer course is the first class the five schools are offering together. The course could pave the way for more joint course offerings in addition to efforts already underway to pool resources and talents among the colleges.

'Northwest Five' Schools Pooling Resources

The five small schools — Whitman, Portland's Reed and Lewis and Clark colleges, Tacoma's University of Puget Sound and Willamette University in Salem — banded together in 2011, with the help of an $800,000 grant, to become the Northwest Five Consortium. The program is modeled after similar groups of colleges in Ohio, New York, the Midwest and the South.

"We hope to improve student learning across the five colleges, to create economies of scale where they can be found in terms of perhaps being able to do things more efficiently or effectively by working together," said Kris Bartanen, University of Puget Sound's academic vice president.

Take foreign languages, for instance. Bartanen notes few of Northwest Five colleges, all of which enroll between 1,400 and 3,800 students, are able to offer classes in the some of the more offbeat foreign languages, so the consortium is pondering ways to jointly offer upper-division language courses.

'Sitting In A Classroom ... You Wouldn't Have That Same Experience'

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
University of Puget Sound professor Emelie Peine listens to staff from Tacoma's waste treatment plant describe their process before her students toured the facility.

The goal of linking the colleges nicely complements University of Puget Sound professor EmeliePeine's food systems course. The students travel the nearly 500 miles that separate UPS, Whitman and Willamette, with professors at each campus offering their direct assistance to the course.

"Watching the landscape change as you travel through it and understanding the different implications those landscapes have for agriculture, for what we can grow and how we grow it and how we use our resources — there's just no way to really understand that except by seeing it," Peine said.

"Sitting in a classroom," she added, "you wouldn't be able to have that same experience."

Student Tim Daly, 22, says the course has been transformative. A visit to an 8,000-acre wheat farm in the Palouse was particularly memorable to the Willamette University senior, who has long been wedded to the idea of finding a career in organic or small-scale agriculture.

"It's been incredible. It's the first time I'd seen a conventional [large-scale] farm, really," Daly said. "I wanted something that pushed me out of that comfortable norm that I'd developed, those insulated ideas that 'organic is the purest,' or 'organic is the best,' and it's done exactly what I've wanted it to do."

Daly is the only Willamette student enrolled in the class; five UPS students and four Whitman students make up the rest of the class. Bartanen says there has already been interest across the Northwest Five campuses in offering the course again, in either the summer of 2015 or 2016.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.