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By Jesus Martinez-Gomez, Heather Philips and Clarice Guan
  • Cornell Botanic Gardens
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Biology Section
  • Plants
  • Environment
  • Nature

This summer, we collaborated with Cornell Botanic Gardens to lead a 4-week online course for school-aged students called “Plants Have Families Too!” The material was adapted from the Botanic Gardens’ annual family botanical event, Judy’s Day, which was cancelled this summer due to COVID-19.

The class was led by three of us — Jesus Martinez-Gomez, Heather Philips and Clarice Guan — all graduate students in Plant Biology in the Specht Lab in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science. In collaboration with Raylene Ludgate, youth program coordinator at the Botanic Gardens, we developed the course material, delivered it and facilitated discussion — all via Zoom.

The course consisted of two 30-minute Zoom sessions on Mondays and Fridays. During the  Monday sessions we introduced the students to a new set of plant families, and asked them to look for members of these families throughout the week. On Fridays, students presented the plants they had found, and asked questions about the plant families for that week. Over the course of four weeks, students learned to identify 10 different plant groups based on morphological features.

a kid colors in a drawing of a plant
Photo provided

While working with young children via Zoom was more challenging than in-person teaching, we came up with a few quick tips for making online instruction both effective and fun:

1. Don’t make lectures longer than 10 minutes

Maintaining student engagement is a bit tricky on Zoom. To keep students engaged, we found that 10-minute lectures were ideal. Any longer and we would lose the class’s attention. On days where we presented more material than would fit in 10 minutes, we included a Q&A activity to re-engage the class.

2. Use the mute button liberally! Make sure you remind students to mute themselves (or do it for them)!

Interaction in over Zoom is very different from a typical classroom. We found that despite our reminders, some students still didn’t raise their hand or they simply spoke out of turn. To ensure that they didn’t derail the discussion, we used the mute button liberally from our end, reinforced the reminders and called on students by name to make sure everyone got a turn to speak.

3. K-6 kids are naturally interested in plants and love looking for them

Plants are often overshadowed by their zoological brethren in K-12 education. Yet we found that kids were enthusiastic about looking at and identifying plants. They were all eager to share their plant collection findings at the end of the week, and naturally chimed in when they knew something about another student’s plant.

4. Teamwork makes the dream work

We were lucky to have three instructors on each of the calls. This allowed for a productive dynamic, where one instructor would lead while the other two were free to monitor the chat and keep an eye out for raised hands.

5. Be willing to improvise

For every class, we wrote up a complete lesson plan and had assigned roles for each part of the session. Despite that, we often had to switch our roles or deviate from the plan to keep the session on track. When students were uninterested in one activity, we moved on to the next, or spent more time discussing the topics that they were clearly more interested in.

Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, the class turned out to be a great success.  Our students learned about more than 10 groups of plants, ranging from ferns and mosses, to Alliums and even the rose family. As instructors, we became masters of Zoom, learning to mediate conversations in a large group of students, while encouraging participation from everyone. Finally, we came out of this course with a whole new set of teaching materials, which should help many more students learn about plants and plant families in the future.

Given the positive reception this course, our next short-course venture for winter may be focused on tree identification!

Jesus Martinez-Gomez, Heather Philips and Clarice Guan are graduate students in the lab of Chelsea Specht, professor of plant biology and associate dean for diversity and inclusion.

To learn more about the course, listen to this interview on WRFI/Ithaca Community Radio station.

Header image: A family visits the Mundy Wildflower Garden. Photo by Jay Potter/Cornell Botanic Gardens, June 2020.

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