Frontiers: Aggregating an agroecosystem


Paul Porter is a professor at the University of Minnesota, but you won’t always find him in a classroom. He has done much of his teaching from his bicycle, on tours through Africa, South America and, most recently, Minnesota.

Portrait: Paul PorterPorter, professor of agronomy and plant genetics, discussed his experiences incorporating adventure learning into his educational work in his Oct. 16 Frontiers in the Environment talk “Aggregating an Agroecosystem: Novel Approaches to Teaching and Learning.”

In 2009, Porter set out on a 12,000-kilometer bike ride from Cairo to Cape Town. His mission: to give students back in Minnesota a firsthand look at different agroecosystems across a range of ecoregions, from deserts to mountains to tropical rainforests.

“Ecoregions can exist without humans and often times we will study the environment, ecology and we’ll ignore the influence of humans,” Porter said. “But if you add humans into the equation, humans are pretty good about trying to meet their needs for food, fiber, fuel, shelter. They create agroecosystems, and if you look around the world today you’ll note, ‘Gee, there’s agroecosystems just about everywhere.'”

Porter was forced to cut his 2009 trip short after a fall in Tanzania fractured his arm, but he returned to Kenya in 2010 to finish the trip. Using a satellite phone and a blog, Porter was able to keep in contact with his students on the other side of the world.

By 2011, Porter turned his bicycling expeditions into a study abroad opportunity, leading three undergraduates and one graduate student on a trip from Buenos Aires to Lima.

Throughout his travels, Porter has observed the many cultural and biophysical factors shaping agroecosystems around the world.

“What are some of the drivers of the agroecosystem to pay attention to? Humans, and their culture, and what they want from the landscape is probably number one,” Porter said. “And then what the landscape can give based on its soils, based on its climate – and that’s the weather, the elevation, the latitude. Those sorts of issues are going to constrain some of what we see on the landscape.”

Porter’s excursions aren’t limited to semester-long treks across faraway continents either. This May he brought his “adventure learning” philosophy to Minnesota, taking six graduate students on a 190-mile ride across the state. Throughout the trip, students spoke in high schools about agriculture and their learning experience.

“What a way for them to experience the landscape,” he said, “and what a great experience for me to be involved with those students, hear their stories and see their perceptions of the landscapes.”

Whether it’s in the highest elevations of the Andes Mountains or in a soybean field in western Minnesota, Porter believes seeing agroecosystems firsthand is the best way to understand how humans across the globe use the land to meet their needs.

“Wherever man tends to go, man tends to create agriculture, agroecosystems,” Porter said. “It asks the question, where have you been where you haven’t seen man’s influence in his efforts to get food, fiber, fuel, and shelter?”

Watch Porter’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.