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Home economics for a new generation

Now called human ecology, its practitioners say the shift to a more science-based discipline reflects a return to the field's roots

BY ANGELA PEREIRA | JUN 09 2008

Remember those days in high-school home economics? If you’re female, you probably do. You concocted a scrumptious tiramisu, devotedly coddled that egg in a basket, or laboured over sewing that apron.

Forget those images, and picture this instead: Students in a research lab at the University of Manitoba are busily working to develop a fabric made of double-functioning polymers that swell so that the fabric becomes impermeable while simultaneously delivering antibiotics to treat the wearer in case of a harmful spill. The students are in the textile sciences program in the university’s faculty of human ecology, doing collaborative research with other faculties such as medicine.

What may surprise you is that the faculty of human ecology is the direct descendent of the university’s home economics program. “Textile sciences” in your high-school home economics class may have entailed sewing an apron, but for students at the University of Manitoba it is cutting-edge research.

Christie Crow, a student in U of M’s integrated human ecology and education program, says if you’re talking to “someone in my grandpa’s generation,” their outdated notion of what she’s taking is “a degree in how to be Martha Stewart.” But students in the field today understand that it is science-based and focused on helping people to lead better lives.

The study of home economics has a robust history in Canada, dating back to the turn of the last century. In 1994, 16 universities across Canada offered undergraduate programs in home economics and its related fields. Now a search for a university home economics program in Canada would be fruitless. The term officially exited Canadian academia last November when the University of Alberta’s faculty of agriculture, forestry and home economics changed its name to the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences.

The University of Alberta, University of Manitoba and Brescia University College at the University of Western Ontario now have human ecology programs instead, while at other Canadian universities the essence of what was once home economics is called family studies, food and nutrition sciences, or a variety of other names.

While it appears as though home economics is evolving past its tradition of cooking and cleaning, many people in the field say it is actually returning to its roots. The genesis of home economics in North America can be traced to a series of conferences starting in 1899 in Lake Placid, New York, where female scholars discussed how they could apply scientific knowledge to household and community work.

In Canada, the first Women’s Institute began teaching courses in household science shortly after that, looking at issues such as home sanitation, the value of foods and fuels, and child care. “Even then, it was multi- disciplinary and looked at the home and the health of the people there,” says Alicia Garcia, a professor of human ecology at Brescia University College.

During the two world wars, home economics explored how to ease the burden of household work and increase women’s self-reliance. Gustaaf Sevenhuysen, dean of University of Manitoba’s faculty of human ecology, says he is amazed by the social impact the discipline had during this period because it brought “the knowledge of science, engineering and medicine into regular folk’s homes.”

But high school home economics classes that focused on cooking, cleaning and sewing helped perpetuate stereotypes about the field that set off an identity crisis at Canadian universities that continues today. “People still royally misunderstand what we do,” says Dr. Sevenhuysen.

In response, many Canadian universities began to call their programs human ecology instead of home economics, even though the curriculum wasn’t changing, says Brescia’s Dr. Garcia. “It was thought to be more science sounding, but it’s just a rebranding, a renaming, so it becomes more attractive.”

Dr. Garcia says Brescia changed the name of its program to human ecology in 1998, and then promptly saw its dropping enrolment begin to rise again. University of Alberta and University of Manitoba had similar experiences. “Since we have returned to the human ecology identity, people are very intrigued by it,” says Janet Fast, dean of U of A’s human ecology department.

Students in the program are still almost exclusively female, but their interests range from nutrition to fashion design to family counselling, says Dr. Fast. The common denominator is that they all want the opportunity to “help people learn how to improve their lives … and how to do that in a very systematic way.”

To address these broad interests, universities have divided their programs into specialties, making the comprehensive home economics degree a thing of the past. At U of A, students can major in family ecology or textiles and clothing, and choose minors such as child and youth studies, community nutrition, community studies, consumer studies, fashion marketing, and museums, curatorship and conservation. Last year Brescia changed its program so that students could major in food and nutrition studies and minor in family studies, says Dr. Garcia.

But many of the field’s traditional domains are being subsumed by other faculties, says Annabelle Dryden, a professional home economist who taught courses at the high school and university levels.

For example, Ryerson University’s home economics program of the 1950s included programs such as early childhood education, fashion and hospitality. These are now taught by different faculties. “What’s missed when these kinds of things are taught in other courses is the family aspect. This is the focal point of home economics and family studies, and that’s missed when it is taught somewhere else,” says Ms. Dryden.

According to people in the field, it is precisely this perspective that will ensure that human ecology graduates and their research will remain relevant in modern society. “We help individuals deal with the situations in which they exist. If we look at quality of life for individuals and families, those who are in family studies programs are in the unique position to address the economics of sustainability and life balance,” says Dr. Garcia.

And in a changing society characterized by social service cutbacks and changing demographics, and threatened with the possibility of rising food prices and a recession, graduates who can help families navigate these turbulent waters will be greatly needed, says Dr. Sevenhuysen at U of Manitoba.

According to the Ontario Home Economics Association, graduates go on to work in areas such as policy making, community development, product research, dietetics, resource management, textile design, financial counselling, nutrition, consumer consulting, among others. Also, human ecology has a strong focus on prevention of social and health problems, says Dr. Sevenhuysen.

The main challenge then is making sure people have the right idea about what human ecologists are doing – whether it’s designing a meal plan for a low-income family, drafting government policy, or developing a protective fabric to protect paramedics. “I am excited about it all … I wouldn’t be in this job if I thought I was just holding the fort,” he says.

PUBLISHED BY
Angela Pereira
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  1. madison / January 8, 2012 at 20:46

    Hi I’m still in high school and am researching universities and programs. My dad mentioned why not study home economics. I kind of backed away at the idea but once he explained it to me I thought to explore it a little better. I found this article curious and also reinforced what my dads explanation of home economics. High school does give a misrepresentation of home economics. When my peers discuss the future, it is purely medicine, law, and engineering. For me to advertise my interests in home economics, well lets just say they would most likely laugh and make some trophy wife comment. I hope to further explore this area of learning,I want to enjoy learning so I’m looking into my interests instead of future cash flow. Thanks for the article, I even bookmarked the page!!

  2. Katie / February 24, 2012 at 12:05

    I am a student at Brescia University College at UWO and I am currently enrolled in the Honours Specialization in Nutrition and Families. When I graduate I will have the title as a Professional Home Economist. For any high school girls, or other women looking to go to university, Brescia is a great pick! Courses in this module include family studies, nutrition, human sexuality, communications, chemistry, biology, clothing textile and design… the list goes on and on. I am looking forward to graduating and I can’t wait to be a Professional Home Economist and have Brescia UWO to thank for it!