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Comment | Balancing your education with sustainably FED

A comment on education.

In a recent Guardian article, a young engineering graduate who currently works on the details of wind turbines explained how valuable it was to have completed a joint degree in engineering and philosophy. 

She had done what few do, combined the sciences with the arts. 

Contrary to her expectations, she found the mix valuable to her career. And not so much in the ways that you would think. 

The engineering part of her degree gave her many skills and practical tools to use in her profession. There were plenty of the “doing” activities that education lauds. She also found that how long she spent on an engineering assignment correlated with the grade that she would get. If she could put the work in, her grades would be higher than if she slacked off, a neat effort-for-reward scenario. 

Here is what she said about the philosophy courses where her grades reflected how good an idea she came up with more than how long she put in doing the work. 

“As an arts student, I gained critical thinking and logic skills, and practised applying them to a variety of issues until they were deeply embedded in the way I now interpret and interact with the world.”

Cognitive problem-solving requires imagination and hard work—the 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration balance I was taught as a trainee scientist—was the skill that gave her success in engineering. But thinking got her through in the arts.

She succeeded in both courses because she connected with both concepts and worked with them. 

At sustainably FED, we are of like mind. We provide a lot of content on the environmental issues of food, ecology, and diet, along with a detailed understanding of the scientific method that brings about that evidence. 

So there is doing the work and some skills to learn. And there is also some knowledge work to put what is learned into examples and context. 

But we are grounded in understanding and integration. 

The ability to problem-solve and decide where the problems need to be solved and how to solve them requires inspiration and perspiration. 

In my time as a lecturer at three universities, I followed what they call the open-ended, student-centred learning approach. Fancy jargon for asking students to come up with the answers rather than get them from the lecturer. Learn through exploration and doing. 

I always had mixed responses to this approach. 

A third of the class loved it from the get-go. 

A third was initially confused but eventually became very good at it. 

And a third of the class just wanted the answer to learn the content and regurgitate what they thought should be in the exam. It usually wasn’t. 

The benefit of open-ended learning is you can follow your instinct and interests. It begins with hints at the theory or the challenge, which points to the direction to take. After that, it’s up to you. 

Back in the day, the primary source of all the content was the research literature gathering dust on the shelves of university libraries. It was an effort to go past the textbook and physically locate the raw evidence in this primary literature—the descriptions of research from leading scholars in the field. 

Most students found that extremely difficult, and we had to spend a lot of time teaching skills to unpack research papers and gain the best from them. They can be dry, impenetrable writings, so the challenge is understandable. 

At sustainably FED, we have created a compromise position where we always align research material to real-world examples. The research still has a central part on the stage, and we avoid the textbooks with their prescriptive logic flows. 

Instead, we go for the skills to navigate the middle ground. 

You don’t have to spend your whole life as a scholar. But FED content is complex, plagued by context and devilish nuance that are key to understanding the problems of feeding everyone well.

Solutions come from ‘critical thinking and logic skills’ applied to the many issues.

Check out our Healthy Sceptic category for more.

Hero image from photo by Yannis H on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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