Students across the country can learn about laws and federal regulations pertaining to food, thanks to an on-line course offered through the food science department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Dr. Pat Curtis, food science professor, began developing the course two years ago, along with graduate student Wendy Jackson. The course opened last fall to students at N.C. State, Wayne State University in Michigan and, now, the University of Maine. It is the universityís and the Collegeís only on-line course taught entirely on the Internet and offered to students at other universities. It is available to undergraduates and graduate students, who must complete additional reading and a term paper.
Several years ago, the Institute of Food Technologists recommended that food science students become better acquainted with food law, so food science schools developed courses to meet that need. Because the requirements were based on IFT objectives, most courses across the country were very similar. Curtis taught the food law course for four years at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.
When Curtis came to N.C. State in 1991, another professor was teaching the food law course. In 1995, Curtis received a grant to develop an on-line version of the food law course. Now, the on-line course is the only food law course available to N.C. State students.
Structuring the course to meet requirements for tuition payment and to provide credit hours to students off campus were among the early challenges. Now, students taking the course on other campuses are registered through their universities and take their mid-term and final exams with a faculty member there. Quizzes and other assignments are submitted via the Internet to Curtis and her teaching assistants to be graded.
Students who take the course on-line seem to like the fact that they can complete lessons at their convenience. Curtis has received assignments and quizzes completed at 2 a.m. At the same time, students must be disciplined enough to keep up with the material. Though the course is self-paced, students must complete at least five of 10 learning modules by the time of the mid-term exam.
"What students like about the course is that itís self-paced," Curtis said. "Internet courses are not for everyone. You have to be motivated to do the work."
And though the subject matter is about food law, the course has attracted students from numerous disciplines, including engineering, chemistry and business. The course is effective for other disciplines because the strategies taught for researching food laws can be transferred for other types of laws, Curtis said.
So how does a student complete a university course on-line? The course is set up in modules of different topics, with individual lessons that require students to complete certain assignments on line.
When a student first enters a module, she is prompted to take a pre-test to determine what she already knows about the subject matter. The pre-test is not graded, but helps the instructors to determine if students are learning the material by comparing pre- and post-test results.
Lessons in each module require students to research certain issues on the Web. Links for on-line resources are provided, though Curtis says keeping the links current can be a challenge, especially for government sites. Each module also includes a study guide for the quizzes and optional reading links for students who want to explore topics in greater detail.
Although students do not meet in a class, they do meet in groups for a class project, which involves an on-line debate. In groups of three to five, students choose a controversial topic in food law, such as the labeling of genetically modified foods, and develop a list of pros and cons regarding the topic. Classmates judge their work by voting on-line for the most convincing side of the argument.
Before mid-terms, N.C. State campus students may get a little anxious about taking an exam in a class they have never attended. Some will visit Curtis and the teaching assistants for reassurance. But by the time the final exam rolls, they are much more comfortable with the format.
Some industry professionals have taken the course on their own, registering through N.C. State, and even more have expressed interest in a new pilot course Curtis is offering this semester. The course on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) food safety strategies may lead to a series aimed at granting HACCP certification to food service employees.
Through on-line courses such as these, the food science department could become the food law and regulation training center for the United States.