"Animal Products in Human Nutrition - Food for Thought," was a course Dr. Jana Kraft had been hoping to teach for some time, so when she was invited her to teach her first sophomore seminar in the Honors College this spring, she jumped at the chance.
"I always wanted to teach something at UVM pertaining to animal products and nutrition," Kraft said. Kraft is an Assistant Professor in the Animal Sciences department at UVM. Her expertise lies at the connections between animal science and human nutrition. Specifically, she examines factors that influence the nutritional quality of animal-based lipids and fatty acids. Such work requires a comprehensive expertise biochemistry, analytical science, animal science and nutrition; it transcends the boundaries of a few academic disciplines, making it a good fit for the Honors College.
Interdisciplinary classes are an excellent fit for the college's sophomore seminars, which draw students from very different academic backgrounds and intellectual interests. That said, the array of backgrounds that Kraft encountered in her first class came as a pleasant surprise.
"In the beginning I wasn't aware there would be such a diverse array of students in my class," Kraft said. Her class was going to cover complex food science topics, and while she had some future scientists in her classroom, she also had students from many other disciplines including engineering, math, and environmental studies. "I asked the Honors College students in my lab about why that was, and they told me, 'We're all science-based, and we took non-science based courses for our sophomore seminar because it was an opportunity to diversify our courses.'"
An opportunity for students can be an intriguing challenge for a professor. Kraft spent the first few weeks of the course giving her students a crash-course in nutrition, food science and animal products. "Now we're moving into all different foods - eggs, meat, honey, and fish products."
To facilitate that learning, Kraft plans to take her students to local farms so students can learn about local animal-based food production first-hand.
"I prefer experiential learning. I'm planning for us to visit the Shelburne Farm cheese-making facility. I'm also arranging for a visit to a turkey farm out in Westford." Students will also visit the CREAM (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management) barn, a student-run dairy herd at UVM's Miller Research Center.
In addition to these trips, students will complete several rigorous writing and public speaking assignments on scientific and societal issues related to food and nutrition. Each student will take part in two of ten debates that will happen over the course of the semester. Debate topics vary widely, and include issues such as organic food vs. conventional food, or advantages and disadvantages of being vegetarian. Kraft assigns her students a side in each debate. "This is not about an opinion, " she says, "It's about finding sources and making arguments to support a point of view."
Students will also be writing a term paper on a topic they chose related to animal products and human health. If the reading, writing, thinking, and public speaking assignments all seems like a lot for students to balance, they need only to look to their professor for an inspiration in time management. In addition to teaching in the Honors College, Kraft is writing publications and grant proposals for research funding, while mentoring six undergraduate and two graduate student researchers in her lab and advising 30 undergraduate students majoring in Animal Sciences. She is also getting ready to embark on a new research project; in April she will partner with the College of Medicine to begin a year-long study to examine the impact of whole milk versus fat-free milk on metabolic risk markers in humans (including impact on cholesterol, blood glucose and insulin).
Kraft's study could change the way we shop for food; it will enable researchers to understand if fat-free milk is truly healthier than whole milk. But that's in the future. In the meantime, Kraft is focused on making sure her students get the most out of her class.
"Ultimately I want my students to learn to write, and learn to write scientifically," Kraft says. "But I also want students to think critically about public perception, and specifically public perception around animal-derived foods that are under scrutiny. I want them to have a better understanding of animal-derived products and what they do for human health."