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The Examined Life

If you take one of Dr. Sarah Ash’s classes, she’ll teach you to D-E-A-L.

Don’t panic. It stands for describe, examine and articulate learning, and it’s part of a model to help you get the most from hands-on projects.

The model Ash helped create is a big deal among service learning advocates, and it’s one of the reasons she’s the NC State winner of the 2011 Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Ash, a nutrition professor, has a passion for service learning.

If you’re a student in her new class on community food security, expect to get personally involved with the issue of hunger. You’ll get dirt under your fingernails working in a community garden. Your brain will also get an interdisciplinary workout as you take an in-depth look at the barriers that prevent families from having dependable access to nutritious food—what’s called food security.

“On a household level, it could be a shut-in situation or a family that hasn’t the sufficient means to get to or pay for needed food,” says Ash, who draws on colleagues’ strong relationships with Raleigh’s Interfaith Food Shuttle to give her students firsthand experiences. “On local to global levels, food security could be affected by loss of farmland, political upheaval, population increase, climate change, export restrictions or other social, environmental or economic disasters.”

In fact, if they learn nothing else, Ash hopes her students will learn to think critically.“The big concerns we have are all complex, and there are no simple approaches. I hope they come away with an ability to ask the right questions.”

Ash’s dedication to her students has earned plenty of accolades, including a regional USDA Food and Agriculture Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award.

But even great teachers have moments of doubt.

“A couple of years ago in the spring, I felt tired and strung-out, that maybe I needed to make a change,” Ash recalls. She stopped in at Starbucks. Half-seriously, she asked for a job application. They were out.

“As I was leaving, at the door, a young man tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You taught me nutrition,’” she says. “He told me that course had changed his life.”

The professor was in.