Karen Dorrat came from a food science and food development background before working in a community food organisation. During the pandemic, she became involved in emergency food provision, which fueled her passion for food education and the need to make positive changes to Scotland’s food system.
Here she tells us more about her career development, the experience of studying for her postgraduate degree in home economics, and the support she has received from the QMU community during one of her most challenging years.
Tell us a bit about your background in food science, before coming to QMU...
I graduated from QMU, way back in 1999, with a BSc (Hons) in Applied Food Science and Marketing, and even spent some years working as a sensory scientist in the University’s food development unit. After having my two children, I then took on a role as project manager in a community food charity, an environmental project involved in growing and sharing local food and providing food education.
During the pandemic, my role changed to fit with the crisis situation, and I became involved in emergency food provision. This experience had a real impact on my me and I grew even more passionate about making a change in Scotland’s food system.
What attracted you to the teaching profession?
I've always believed the key to improving the food system is education, and that is not simply teaching someone to cook, but everything from food literacy, learning how to enjoy our food, to understanding the links between our food and our health and how our food choices affect the environment.
What is it about home economics that interests you and why do you think it is an important subject?
Food is at the heart of the higher education curriculum but is actually a fantastic tool for educating in all manner of subjects so ideally, I would like to see all teachers using it in their classes.
What is so exciting about home economics is how it delivers every day, essential life skills, whilst also addressing worldwide issues - from the politics of what is on our plate, to how we help people and the planet thrive. As the challenges of sustainable living become more pressing, the subject is more relevant than ever, and I love that we can play a part in sharing that in schools.
In what ways do you believe home economics is of value to the lives of today’s young people?
Young people will learn the fundamental skills of producing nourishing food for themselves and their families, no matter their financial situation. But more than that, they will learn to be creative, develop literacy and budgeting skills, and become more independent. There are many misconceptions of what home economics is, but the curriculum is actually very flexible and innovative, and learners can choose to follow food technology, fashion and textiles, childcare, or even bakery or barista routes.
How will it help them to become healthy, engaged citizens? (if not answered above)
By taking home economics young people can learn about the importance of their food choices, for example, how it will impact their physical and mental health, the environment around them and the local economy. They will learn about wider societal issues such as food poverty, food waste, fairtrade, animal welfare, the impact of poor diet on health-related diseases and even their role as a consumer. All this on top of learning cooking skills that help keep them fit and well!
What areas of the course have you most enjoyed?
I have really enjoyed learning to sew, as I had previously been very nervous about teaching fashion and textiles, but it has been such a useful skill and I understand more now about its role in sustainability, allowing us to reuse and recycle and make the most of our resources. I have also enjoyed learning about the profession of teaching and how teachers can carry out research to develop their subject and keep up-to-date with new ways of thinking, trends and technology.
What have the challenges been?
The course has been very fast paced with a huge amount of learning to take in. I found the placements in school a steep learning curve as I got to grips with putting into practice what we had been doing on campus, navigating new school policies and procedures and delivering back-to-back practical cooking lessons! However, it was great to feel it all coming together and looking back, I’m proud I made it!
What was the biggest lesson you learned?
I learned that it isn’t a myth that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know anything!
How has the course stretched you?
I had to learn resilience and perseverance as it is tempting to give up when you feel the pressure mounting. I learned so much that was completely new to me, but it’s important to keep things in perspective.
How have you juggled study with other personal commitments?
I have two daughters at home (and a pup!) and it has been difficult to keep on top of everything but it’s not new to me to be juggling - plenty of working mums manage it every day!
What were the most memorable moments of the practical side of the course?
I love outdoor learning and was so pleased to see that QMU really values outdoor learning and is investing in developing this important area for future primary and secondary teachers. QMU is creating an Outdoor Learning Hub, which will be located in the grounds of campus, to help develop the skills and knowledge of student teachers, as well as upskilling the wider teaching profession in Scotland. Again, I believe home economics is the perfect subject in which to teach outdoor learning - helping people gain knowledge about growing their own food and understanding the ecosystem; valuing resources; and understanding the mental health benefits derived from being active in the great outdoors and connecting with nature.
Have you used any support services at QMU to help you with study and learning?
I had huge upheaval in my personal life during my time studying here, but I got lots of support and encouragement from the University tutors, my personal academic tutor and the welfare service. I also had some health issues, which I received support for, and my classmates were really kind too. QMU is a very caring environment and there is a culture of being aware of the importance of wellbeing, which then helps you to focus on your studies.
What top tips would you give others thinking about embarking on a career in home economics?
Take time to understand what the subject really is. It covers so much and can be interpreted in many different ways, but this is part of its beauty and being able to pass on our enthusiasm for the subject is part of the job.
"I love outdoor learning and was so pleased to see that QMU really values outdoor learning and is investing in developing this important area for future primary and secondary teachers. "