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A Fruitful Collaboration

This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Tableaux.

In 2012, Fontbonne University’s annual Dedicated Semester focused on the culture, economics and science of food. It was termed, “Foodology.” Coincidence? Decidedly not. The dual names are the result of a fruitful connection between the two St. Louis institutions, one through which six Fontbonne students achieved valuable practicum experience and the university gained a new community collaborator.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Karen Mills, a 2013 dietetics graduate who began the practicum at the Garden in the fall of 2012. “People at the Missouri Botanical Garden were welcoming, warm, supportive and creative. It was an amazing group of people to work with.”

The connection began in 2010, when the leadership of both institutions came together to discuss opportunities for collaboration, according to Sheila Voss, vice president of education at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“The Garden enjoys collaborative relationships with many institutions of higher education throughout the St. Louis region and beyond, and we were pleased to deepen relations with Fontbonne,” she said.

“We were impressed with Fontbonne’s Dedicated Semester initiative to immerse students in a singular topic in multi-disciplinary ways,” Voss explained. “As such, we pursued a partnership related to the topic of food, given the Garden’s 2013 ‘Foodology: Dig In!’ year-long series of exhibits, programs and special events. As part of that partnership, the Garden held food-related classes and tours for Fontbonne students in the Fall of 2012, then initiated a Foodology Practicum program with six Fontbonne students.”

Those six students arrived at the Garden with a variety of backgrounds and interests: two biology majors, one university major focused on consumer affairs, two dietetics majors, and one dual major in dietetics and biology. The majority of the students worked in the Garden’s Brookings Interpretive Center, a family friendly facility with hands-on activities and numerous opportunities for exploration and inquiry. While some students created visual displays, Mills and one other student, Sarah Woods, collaborated with Garden staff to create an interactive wall within the center. 

“The great thing about the Garden is that they never told us no,” Mills said. “The freedom they gave us was incredible.”

During the fall, Mills recalled, she and Woods learned all about the Garden’s philosophy, explored the background of the Foodology exhibition, and began strategically developing a food- and Foodology-themed wall display. In the spring, they began bringing their ideas to life. They devised a plan for an “Ask the Experts” mailbox, a “Famous St. Louis Eats” display, and a “Food Story” submission form, allowing guests to tell their own stories about the food that has shaped their lives. The display team at the Garden made their plans reality with colorful signage, props and supplies. The result? A fun, interactive and informative booth for kids and adults to learn and think more about the foods they eat, and a chance for Fontbonne students to showcase their expertise. 

“The goals of the practicum program were two-fold,” explained Voss. “Immerse Fontbonne students in what it takes to engage, educate and inspire visitors at an open-to-the-public learning destination, and leverage student expertise, insight and ideas in core content areas — nutrition and dietetics, biology and ecology specifically — to inform and influence the Foodology series of exhibits and programs. I’m happy to report that both objectives were met!”

Indeed, Fontbonne was so impressed, it presented the Garden with the 2013 Jason Sommer Dedicated Semester Award for its contribution to the university.

Mills, who will complete a dietetic internship with the St. Louis VA Medical Center in May 2014, plans to combine clinical and community dietetics in her future practice. She felt like her Fontbonne education and her experience at the Garden helped ready her for this next step.

“I feel very prepared,” she said. “We’ve had so many opportunities to go out in the community. We’ve been able to go out and apply what we learned in class. Real world work differs from book work — we can see how one translates to the other.”

You can see the work of Fontbonne University students through the end of the year in the Brookings Interpretive Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden.