University of Vermont

College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science


Dan Baker Brings ‘Service-Learning’ to New Level

Dan Baker portrait
""In all my interactions with students I encourage them to believe in and seek opportunities to create change for the better. … Ultimately, I want to cultivate durable hope so that our students have the ability to engage in challenging issues and thoughtfully apply the skills they learn here at UVM to benefit themselves and the world," says Dan Baker.

Dan Baker was a pioneer in the area of service-learning long before it was popular or recognized.

“Service-learning” is a buzz phrase that describes a current trend nationwide in higher education. It refers to hands-on experience for students, organized between a university and a community organization that needs volunteers. UVM builds service-learning into much of its curriculum and proudly advertises these opportunities widely in its admissions materials and the like.

But Baker has taken service-learning to another level.

And then another level.

Before explaining how that works, it must be said that Dan Baker breaks the college-teacher mold in other ways. He blazed his own educational path as a student. He didn’t follow the most direct route through academia. And as a result, he is a new kind of teacher, mentor, leader, researcher and harbinger of change.

In the 1980s Baker attended Antioch College in Ohio and earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Burlington College. He has traveled widely and worked as a sailboat captain, river guide and a maple sugarmaker, to name a few. In 1995, he earned his master’s degree in agricultural economics at the University of Vermont. And in 2007, Baker earned both a certificate in ecological economics and his Ph.D. in UVM’s School of Natural Resources.

He taught in UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) for a full decade as a lecturer before being promoted to assistant professor in 2007 in the department of community development and applied economics (CDAE) where he teaches three courses. Since then he has earned three top teaching awards from the University and the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture, and on April 21 received CALS Joseph E. Carrigan Award for Undergraduate Teaching.

Advanced Service-Learning Starts Here

Baker created a closed loop teaching system in which he involves students in his research and field courses and then links the results back to both the classroom and student jobs to amazing results. Here’s how.

First, he seeks research projects that meet rural community needs across issues, cultures, technologies and systems. Since 2003, he has conducted more than two dozen projects, partnering with farmers, non-profits and government institutions – ranging from investigating Latino farm workers’ health issues to increasing mobile home parks’ resilience to disasters like tropical storm Irene or transferring the methods he uses a maple sugarmaker to help Hondurans make cane sugar on a small scale.

“I start with the question of what is limiting a community’s development and then use applied research skills and an action orientation to assemble and organize the resources needed to help partners move forward,” Baker says.

Then he adds students.

“One of my greatest accomplishments has been to involve my students directly in my research,” because, Baker says, it “enables students to clarify their interests, develop skills and find employment quickly after graduation. I continue to work with former students as project partners in their professional careers, providing a network of experienced community development leaders in Vermont, the U.S. and abroad.”

That is the elegance of what Dan Baker has accomplished. That is the next level of service-learning.

As Baker’s colleague Josh Farley observed, “I believe that Dan is a campus leader in applied, problem-based education – the highest level of service-learning. Dan builds lasting relationships with communities…then prepares students to work with these communities. Dan puts his reputation on the line each time he does this. But his ability to prepare and motivate students for problem-based research allows his reputation to remain untarnished.”

Next is the third level Dan Baker takes service-learning.

Making the Most of Mega-Classes

While he only is able to work directly with a few dozen students in his field research, and a few dozen more in his two other courses that lead to a trip to Honduras, the stories that naturally emerge from this field work provide context for the thousands of students he has taught in his most well known class – World Food Population and Development – affectionately called CDAE 002.

This class is one of UVM’s largest – packed with an average of 232 students every single semester, twice a year.

As class counts quadrupled in the last decade, rather than be dismayed, Baker adjusted his teaching style. Little things make a big difference, like asking students to say their names when they speak up, developing a large music catalog and playing tunes in each class that reflects course themes.

But the biggest thing that keeps students on the edges of their seats is the stories. Baker’s own research and other courses provide gripping stories of UVM students shoveling out mobile homes destroyed by Irene (and then recycling them) and of Hondurans who no longer burn tires to stoke sugar cane evaporators, to name two examples.

“I share these practical experiences with my students to help them see how the theory they learn in the classroom can be applied in the field and vice versa – how practical experience can inform and advance theory,” Baker says. “This works well with students and serves as a guide when I emphasize the importance of clarifying personal goals, setting objectives and developing the skills they need to achieve their own standards of success.”

A Man with a Plan; Lesson Plan that is

Baker could not lead his students to setting and carrying out goals if he was not himself a man with a plan. In his own description of how he sees his teaching. Baker wrote:

  • “One of the most important things I want to do … is encourage students to believe that they can each contribute to creating a positive and hopeful future.

  • “I want them to know that it takes hard work, dedication, discipline – and that the effort is worth it.

  • “I believe strongly that as teachers we need to encourage our students to embrace complexity and the uncertainty that it implies. I try to share both the tough stories that highlight our challenges, as well as the good ideas and efforts being made around the world to innovate and advance development, even in the most difficult circumstances.”

Baker’s student evaluations are practically off the charts, especially when measuring enthusiasm and sensitivity. Former student, Kelly Hamshaw, who was a CDAE 002 teaching assistant, notes that this is all the more impressive because CDAE 002 deals with controversial issues of hunger, environmental degradation, population growth and genocide, diversity, poverty, privilege justice and human rights. Yet, she says, Baker,infuses into his lectures a combination of urgency and cautious optimism. And he empowers students to focus on solutions and affect change.”

Sara Fletcher’s testimony speaks for many students when she said, “Dr. Baker challenged me when I felt that I was not accomplishing everything I had hoped for. When I felt that I couldn’t tackle a project I might not be qualified for, he encouraged me to keep going and to do a better job than someone more qualified could have managed.”

Sara Fletcher changed her major from engineering to community and international development (CID). Hamshaw added a CID minor to environmental science major, then earned a master’s degree in CDAE with Baker as her advisor and is now his research assistant. These are not unusual reactions to Baker’s teaching.

Baker said, “In all my interactions with students, I encourage them to believe in and seek opportunities to create change for the better.... Ultimately, I want to cultivate durable hope, so that our students have the ability to engage in challenging issues and thoughtfully apply the skills they learn here at UVM to benefit themselves and the world.”

“Because he incorporates these concepts into his research program, students are transformed into global citizens with the drive, maturity and ability to tackle what might seem to be insurmountable problems of the human race with cultural sensitivity and a toolbox full of skills,” says his boss, Jane Kolodinsky, chair of CDAE. “In this way his influence is spreading through the U.S. and globe, as former students gain employment at non-profits or government organizations with the goal of making the world a better place.”