Students seek a solution to food waste

In the international Sustainability Master Class course, students looked for solutions to problems relating to food waste, consumer choices and the coping of dairy farmers. During the course, which imitated processes employed at startups, ideas were exchanged across faculty boundaries as well as with business life.

It’s nice to be on the winning side. No wonder, then, that Pauliina Piuhola appeared particularly satisfied at Think Corner on 25 April. After all, her team Roska (‘Garbage’) had just won the Sustainability Master Class course.

The winning proposal fights food waste with a waste challenge in which people illustrate the amount of their weekly organic waste with the help of empty milk cartons.

The proposal was one of the six works in the competition and one of three focused on reducing food waste.

“It feels great,” Piuhola says.

And not only because of winning: for her, the entire course was a positive experience.

“For once, we got our hands dirty. We’ve had enough of theoretical courses.”

The concrete nature of the course extended to the team members recruiting their friends as guinea pigs to collect their food waste in milk cartons. Among the revelations gained in the challenge was the fact that smell didn’t become a problem in a single week.

Between faculties

Master Classes are courses organised by the University in cooperation with partners where the emphasis is on solving concrete problems.

In the Sustainability Master Class, there were three challenges: influencing consumers’ dietary choices, reducing food waste and improving the wellbeing of milk producers. The challenges were based on the business needs of Valio, the University’s partner for this particular Master Class.

The students were divided into six teams who got to choose the challenge they had to face. When composing the teams, particular attention was paid to diversity. For example, the Val-nuts team, which considered the issue of dietary choices, included a nutritionist, a food scientist, a student of environmental sciences, a postgraduate student of genetics and a philosopher.

Matti Roukka, a member of Val-nuts, found cross-disciplinary collaboration the most important merit of the course.

“No one in our team knew each other beforehand, but we quickly found a way to work together. An approach based on challenges suited us well: we had a clear goal towards which to strive together.”

According to Roukka, each member had a perspective with great value to the group.

“I have a master’s degree in food science and technology, which provided a personal view based on industry and economy. On the other hand, the challenge was largely about influencing human behaviour, in regard to which philosophy, for example, had a lot to give when pondering what drives peoples’ choices and how consumers could be guided towards healthier purchases.”

All in all, the course lasted roughly four months, during which the students held meetings with mentors and took part in workshops. In addition, Val-nuts convened almost every week, taking advantage of the members’ personal contacts.

The process progressed from defining the problem to narrowing it down and potentially solving it, much like in a startup think tank.

Val-nuts came up with an idea for an application which would make it easy to plan weekly grocery shopping in a balanced and sustainable manner.

In the end, Roukka believes the course workload exceeded the credits awarded, yet he considers the experience as absolutely positive.

International students in every group

The language of the Sustainability Master Class was English, as every team had at least one international student in its membership.

One of them was Annika Raschen, a German student in the Master’s Programme in Agricultural, Environmental and Resource Economics.

Raschen became interested in the course right after reading about it on a mailing list.

“The course seemed different and also interesting thanks to its multidisciplinary approach.”

She ended up focusing on the issue of food waste.

Collaboration with Finnish-language students posed no problems. English was spoken in all team meetings and joint workshops.

As a topic, Raschen was unfamiliar with food waste. Still, she considers the mindset promoted by the course, where ideas were developed using tools of service design, its central benefit.

“Never before had I thought about entrepreneurship as a career option, but now it started to actually feel possible.”

Raschen’s group, Unspoiled, developed an application to help plan shopping for groceries and cooking in a way that would minimise waste. The group has been talking about taking their idea further.

“We don’t have a concrete plan yet, but at least I wouldn't like to just leave it to gather dust in a drawer. I think there could be a demand for it.”

Contacts outside the University

More than anything, Pauliina Piuhola from the Roska team became interested in the course thanks to Valio, known for its research activities.

“We paid several visits to Valio’s facilities in Pitäjänmäki, Helsinki to talk with and get advice from Valio employees serving as our mentors. At the same time, we got a feel of professional life.”

During the course, contacts were made with both business life and different disciplines.

Piuhola recommends the Master Class course to anyone interested in challenges.

“I think there could be even more courses that employ a practical approach. For instance, a course organised in partnership with businesses from various sectors could be interesting.”

Read more about Master Class

Master Class

Master Class is a multidisciplinary, challenge-based University of Helsinki program for students, young researchers and professionals. The unique program serves as a co-creation platform to develop sustainable, hands-on solutions to real-life challenges defined together with a partner organization. Master Class programs bring together forward-looking minds and takes them through a four-month long learning-process, generating new ideas, knowledge and insight that help build a vision for the future.

Read more about Master Class