Learning by doing: the UNISG experience

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UNISG Masters students get ready to visit a pig farm near Parma

To an anthropologist it makes perfect sense that one of the best ways to learn is to go out into the field to experience life first-hand. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, certainly understood the power of experiential learning when he set up the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Besides being the first truly interdisciplinary university with a focus on food studies, the thing that sets UNISG apart is the emphasis placed on hands-on learning. ‘Stages’ are an integral part of both the graduate and undergraduate programs (the French term ‘stage’ can be translated as an apprenticeship). At UNISG, stages vary in length from three to ten days. Although much briefer than traditional anthropological field schools, UNISG students travel to various parts of Italy and throughout the world (Australia, Kenya and Japan are just a few destinations) to better understand food production and culture all over the globe. Petrini’s goal is to give these young gastronomes a better understanding of the diversity and challenges faced when it comes to food not only at home but all over the world today.

I have to admit I had not fully understood or appreciated the concept of the ‘stages’ until I attended two days of the cured meat stage with the Masters students last week. The smell of the pig farm and the cool humidity of the culatello cellars are strong sensory experiences that I will never forget. Using all of the senses to learn certainly makes sense when studying food. Although this type of learning does require a great deal of travel, it is a truly indispensable experience because somethings cannot be learned from books alone.

This new little university struggles at times to find a balance between traditional academic approaches and a new experiential model of student-based learning. However, this project shows incredible potential and will perhaps lead the way for new ways of thinking about food from production to consumption. Learning by doing and experience is what really sets the University of Gastronomic Sciences apart.

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