Teaching Horticulture in the virtual realm

From an outsider’s perspective, the prospect of teaching horticulture during a pandemic, when courses are strictly taught online, seems near impossible. But for the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, the pivot wasn’t as difficult as one might think.

When CSU pivoted to online learning post-Spring Break due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the department was in a unique position to capitalize on an initiative several years in the making. With online learning becoming more popular in recent years, faculty had already been engaged with teaching its content in a virtual setting.

“Thankfully, many of our faculty in the department already teach classes online so they have experience and can easily pivot to the online format, even if they have not yet put all of their courses online,” says Jennifer Bousselot, an assistant professor in the department who has spearheaded much of the online teaching. “It is thrilling to see how quickly and effectively they have moved to the fully online format.”

Various ways to teach horticulture online

Jim Klett, a landscape horticulturalist in the department known for his campus walk-and-teach sessions, was quick to utilize the power of YouTube, bringing the campus flora to his students via digital learning sessions.

“For my Hort 221 Class, which is landscape plant identification, I decided that instead of having outdoor labs like I had when students were on campus, I did YouTube videos of all of my plant walks on campus and told student where I was on campus,” says Klett. “I think the students appreciated getting to see the plants in landscape settings and hearing me talk about them. It was considerably more work recording them all and getting them posted on Canvas but at least the students got to see the plants in landscape settings.”

Josh Craver, an assistant professor of controlled environment horticulture, had a similar challenge. The students in his practicum were meant to care for two to three cultivars of plants, but with distance learning, he had to bring that experience to them remotely.

“It was interesting, to say the least,” says Craver. “We pride ourselves in our practicums. To be stripped of that hands-on experience can be disappointing, but I was blown away at how engaged our students were. They rose to the occasion.”

To complete the coursework, students examined weekly photos of their cultivars, taken by Craver and his grad students, and responded with instructions on how to care for them. Such decisions involved determining the fertilization schedule, pruning, pest issues and more. Craver notes that it was a “dynamic back-and-forth” between him and the students, but they were able to successfully finish out the course.

Not all faculty had to completely rely on the digital realm. Assistant professor Mark Uchanski brought the growing experience to his students via mailers. Taking a page from a pre-existing course where online students can purchase a semester’s worth of growing materials through the CSU bookstore, Uchanski mailed lettuce starter packs to students, which proved challenging in its own right.

“Every student has varying access to internet speeds, but not every student has access to a patio where they can grow,” says Uchanski. “Students would usually have five to 10 pots, where they’d be testing potting mix. Instead we boxed up seeds and potting mix and shipped them so they can grow at home.”

While the end-products might not have been as robust as lettuce grown in the Horticulture Center, students were still able to get an intimate experience in tending to a crop.

In the end, the department was able to leverage pre-existing measures and a touch of creativity to ensure students were able to finish out the semester.

“Most of the faculty have been resourceful and creative,” remarks Bousselot. “I did prepare a quick start document the week we found out that everyone was going online to help prepare faculty. Two things have come up in conversation with other faculty: technology concerns and tactics for communicating with students. The technology questions are usually about what programs or features of programs are the most useful for various teaching techniques. The discussions about communicating with students typically relates to how to best communicate with students on timely topics and how much more time it takes to communicate that way.”