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SIPS takes on the active learning challenge

Cornell Chronicle [2018-10-03]

Dan Buckley works with Julia Smith and Chloe Carpenter, both ‘20

Hands-on “active learning” is an instructional method that is being increasingly adopted in classrooms across the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). CALS is promoting this effort by supporting faculty with grant funding. This academic year, six proposals split $500,000 to help hundreds of students sharpen critical thinking skills, develop in-the-field experience, and become equipped with skills to tackle scientific problems rather than be passive learners.

Of the six courses funded to adopt active learning strategies, four are taught by SIPS faculty Taryn Bauerle, Chelsea Specht, Dan Buckley, and Kerik Cox.  Bauerle’s course, “The Nature of Plants” (PLHRT 1115) will be taught in  Springn 2019, as will Specht’s class on Evolutionary Plant Morphology.

However, active learning is already being implemented for the Fall 2018 courses supported by the grant funding. In Introductory Microbiology (BioMi 2900) taught by Esther Angert, professor in the Department of Microbiology, and Dan Buckley, professor in the Department of Microbiology and the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), students were given reading assignments outside class to learn the flow of information in the cell. Classroom time was dedicated to learning the intricacies of DNA replication, transcription and translation in a more engaged way.

“This is complicated stuff; students often get confused and want to memorize a list of components,” said Buckley. “But it’s not something to be memorized: Cell function is a process, it’s a program.”

“We’ve been developing a lot of active-learning teaching strategies as we try to break students away from memorization,” said Angert.

Kerik Cox and students examine apples at Little Tree Orchards (photo: Edward Kitchen)

In Biology and Management of Plant Diseases (PLPPM 3010), active learning means getting students out of the lab and lecture hall to local farms. Rather than learn through lecture, students inspect squash, apples and other produce at an operating farm to see actual diseases, pests and problems and interact with growers.

“Our classes focus on plant disease, but what I wanted them to understand from their grower visit is the breadth of the integrated nature of the topic. For growers, diseases are a part of horticulture, plant breeding, entomology; it’s complex and multifaceted,” said Kerik Cox, associate professor in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section of SIPS, who co-teaches the course with support specialist Mary McKellar.

Plant science major Isabella Yannuzzi ’20 and others in the class visited the Silver Queen Farm in Trumansburg, New York. Ahead of the trip, students researched common local diseases. Face-to-face with the farmers, students asked about growing practices, the use of pesticides and crop rotation.

“I appreciate it when you get to go out and they let you apply your knowledge yourself; it’s different than reproducing knowledge on a test,” said Yannuzzi. “You get to see the information you’re learning and you actually get to use it.”

Cox said this semester the same amount of lecture material is being presented, but activities have been restructured. Cox and McKellar have strategized ways to get students thinking and applying their knowledge by posing scenarios and real-world examples during class time once dedicated to lecture.

Even small changes in the classroom can have a big impact, Merkel said. Having students talk among themselves, adding polls and questions during lectures, and flipping the classroom – a method for delivering instructional content before class, and using the class time for more active learning – are some strategies faculty have implemented.

Mary McKellar assists with sample analysis (photo: Matt Hayes)

McKellar said incorporating more active learning in the classroom is helping students see the bigger picture and the “Why” of what they are learning.

“I think a lot of times students get hung up on the details and forget why they are learning the material,” she said. “It’s not just to memorize. Instead, students are learning the biology of these pathogens to better understand how to manage disease.”

The proposal submitted by Cox and McKellar emphasized that student evaluations had motivated the move toward more active learning.  Specifically, students expressed a desire for authentic fieldwork in observing and collecting plant diseases and more opportunities to understand how to apply disease management strategies using approaches that considered growers, crop production, pathogen biology, and the environment.

The complete list of SIPS courses receiving funding:

  • Integrating Active Learning to Promote Critical Thinking in the Nature of Plants (PLHRT 1115)
    • Instructor: Taryn Bauerle, associate professor in the Horticulture Section of SIPS
  • Engaged Teaching in Organismal Biology in Insect Biology (ENTOM 2120), Herpetology (BioEE4700) and Evolutionary Plant Morphology
    • Chelsea Specht, professor, Section of Plant Biology in SIPS
    • Patrick O’Grady, professor, Department of Entomology
    • Kelly Zamudio, professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
  • Development and Implementation of a Problem Based Learning Project for Biology and Management of Plant Diseases (PLPPM 3010) (full proposal)
    • Kerik Cox, associate professor, Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology in SIPS
    • Mary McKellar, teaching support specialist, SIPS
  • Introductory Microbiology Lecture (BioMi 2900)
    • Esther R. Angert, professor, Department of Microbiology
    • Daniel H. Buckley, professor, SIPS and Department of Microbiology
PLPPM 3010 students visiting Hosmer Vineyards (photo: Mary McKellar)

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