STORY: Lab-Grown Mushrooms a Lesson in Sustainable Eating

January 25, 2024

Helen Donis-Keller incorporates a hands-on lab to teach students to grow their own food.

Helen Donis-Keller, professor of biology and art and Michael E. Moody Professor at Olin, is growing mushrooms in her lab to show students the importance of sustainability in the food industry.

Donis-Keller teaches “Biomes, Climate Change, and Biodiversity (BCB),” a course that takes students from the biosphere to the molecular level as they learn about how life works, as well as the intersections between global warming and the resultant changes to climate that affect all organisms on Earth. Part of this contextual discussion revolves around the importance of eating less meat to help the planet.

“A key to sustainability in food production is eating more plant-based food,” says Donis-Keller. “The amount of agricultural space used to generate food for large animals is enormous, and industrial animal production produces a lot of waste and has many negative impacts on the environment.”

One issue with these discussions, Donis-Keller noticed, was that many of her students—particularly those from urban or even suburban areas—didn’t have much contact with or appreciation for the natural world.

Student Maddy Robertson with class grown mushrooms.

Student Maddy Robertson'25 pictured with class grown mushrooms

“I wanted to help change that,” says Donis-Keller. “Ben Linder [ADE director and professor of design and mechanical engineering] teaches a co-curricular called Growing Edible Mushrooms (GEM), so with his help I decided to incorporate that notion into my BCB course.”

Borrowing some of Linder’s equipment, Donis-Keller included growing edible mushrooms as a pilot project  for the first time this past fall. Students cultivated King Blue Oyster mushrooms, a process that takes about 40 days from start to finish. Students began by inoculating spawn bags with liquid mycelium for initial growth, then transferred the contents to substrate bags containing wood and soy pellets. The mushrooms were incubated in a growth chamber under high humidity before students were finally able to harvest the mushroom flush.

“It’s a very hands-on lab that allows students to see that they can easily grow something that’s really good for them, and it’s better for the planet,” says Donis-Keller. “These kinds of interactions and activities don’t often happen at other schools; Olin is so open to different kinds of teaching and learning, and the number of faculty who are committed to sustainability is impressive.”

Much like many other Olin faculty, Donis-Keller incorporates elements of sustainability in all her courses. For example, students in her “Digital Photography: Seeing Is Believing” course complete a photojournalism project about how photography can be used to do good in the world, particularly calling attention to climate change. Photo subjects have included Olin’s solar panel carport, a local plant-based food company, and Olin’s SERVE meal packing session for Rise Against Hunger that takes place on Family Weekend. 

Substrate Bags

Flush in Growth Chamber

Growth Chamber

Student Cassandre Roos with class grown mushrooms