Plant systematics is a sophomore level, 3-credit, required course for undergraduate students majoring in horticulture offered through the Department of Horticulture at The Pennsylvania State University. The course consists of twice weekly lecture sessions (each 50 min long) and one weekly laboratory session (115 min long). Laboratory sessions emphasize 14 major plant families, representing the subclasses developed by Cronquist (Walters and Keil, 1996). Families include the Nymphaeaceae, Rosaceae, Asteraceae, Cucurbitaceae, Cactaceae, Fagaceae, Liliaceae, and Poaceae.
Individual laboratory sessions are developed and taught by undergraduate students who have completed the plant systematics course in a previous year. Each year, all students enrolled in the course are extended the opportunity to teach in subsequent years. Appropriate motivational incentives can increase the success of course activities by encouraging participation (Henneberry and Beshear, 1995; Murano and Knight, 1999b). As an incentive to teach, students can earn one 200-level credit in independent studies, which advances the completion of their baccalaureate degree in horticulture.
In addition to earning academic credit, students increase their technical knowledge of plant systematics by becoming more proficient on a particular plant family. To effectively communicate, student instructors must have a thorough understanding of the concepts they are teaching, which is an important outcome of problem-based learning (Duch, 1996). Through their teaching experience, students also develop leadership skills, including in written and oral communication, which can be beneficial in their future agricultural careers (U.S. Department of Labor, 2006). Leadership skills are sought after in many careers in agriculture, including those in extension (Fehlis, 2005; Moore and Rudd, 2005) and rural cooperatives (Wadsworth, 2003).
Each laboratory session consists of an oral presentation, in-class handout, applied exercises, and a homework assignment. These materials are designed to include visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning activities to aid in teaching effectiveness (Murano and Knight, 1999a) by addressing differences in student learning styles (Murphrey and Boyd, 2003). Student instructors work independently on developing teaching materials; however, the course instructor reviews materials to ensure that the content is thorough, accurate, and appropriate. Granting the students discretion in developing materials encourages creativity and builds independent learning skills (Cox, 1993). Student instructors approach developing teaching materials from the perspective of recently having completed the course. This perspective provides them with insight to the needs of the currently enrolled students. They can develop materials based on those needs as well as their assessment of materials used when they were enrolled in the course. Student instructors’ grades are based on completion of required teaching elements as well as attending two 1-h planning meetings, each once per week in the 2 weeks before the laboratory session.
At the beginning of each laboratory session, the student instructor is formally introduced to the class by the course instructor or a teaching assistant (Fig. 1). The student instructor then delivers a 30-min presentation describing botanical characteristics and ethnobotanical information pertaining to the family. The majority of student instructors use PowerPoint (Microsoft, Redmond, Wash.) slides as a teaching aid; however, some have incorporated movie and television clips and the Internet. Student instructors also prepare a one- to two-page handout corresponding to the presentation which is posted on the course website for the students to print and bring to the laboratory session.
A 10-min recess for the students follows the oral presentation. During the recess, the student instructor and teaching assistants assemble five stations, each with an applied exercise that focuses on morphological characteristics, systematic classification, or ethnobotanical information pertaining to the family. To increase student exposure to course concepts and effectively use the 55 min allotted for completing the exercises, two duplicates of each station are assembled. Students are randomly assigned to cooperative groups of two or three students and provided an assignment worksheet to be completed during the laboratory (Fig. 2). As the students complete the laboratory exercises, the role of the student instructor shifts from a teacher to a coach or facilitator, as has been observed by others using cooperative teaching activities (Bull and Clausen, 2000). In this role, student instructors develop listening and communication skills as they are called upon to clarify concepts and to provide feedback on observations.
At the end of each laboratory session, students are given a homework assignment to be completed by the following week. Student instructors have been innovative in their choice of assignments and have used plant walks, comics, and cross-word puzzles to reinforce laboratory topics. Assignments (laboratory worksheet and homework) are graded by the student instructor and reviewed by the course instructor.
Undergraduate student instructors were asked to participate in a survey after they had taught a laboratory session in 2003–2005. Twenty-one undergraduate students taught a laboratory session for academic credit in that time period. Eleven of the 21 student instructors completed the survey (52% response rate). Six students taught more than one laboratory session either within a single semester or over 2 or 3 years, and the majority of student instructors were female (63%).
Additionally, surveys were administered to students enrolled in the plant systematics course in 2003–2005, to determine their assessment of the laboratory sessions. Forty-seven students completed the survey (81% response rate). Means and standard deviations were determined for survey data using SAS (version 9.1.3; SAS Institute, Cary, N.C.). Standard errors were determined using Bonferoni's t statistic (t0.05,6,46). The Office of Research Protection at the Pennsylvania State University approved both surveys.
Bull, N.H. & Clausen, J.C. 2000 Structured group learning in undergraduate and graduate courses J. Natural Resources Life Sci. Educ. 29 46 50
Cox, C.E. 1993 The use of independent study courses to teach lifelong learning skills North Amer. Colleges Teachers Agr. J. 37 33 36
Henneberry, S.R. & Beshear, M. 1995 Bridging the gap between theory and reality: a comparison of various teaching methods North Amer. Colleges Teachers Agr. J. 39 15 17
Murano, P.S. & Knight, T.D. 1999a Determination of learning styles in an introductory food science course North Amer. Colleges Teachers Agr. J. 43 50 53
Murano, P.S. & Knight, T.D. 1999b Introducing a cooperative learning term project into an introductory food science course North Amer. Colleges Teachers Agr. J. 43 21 25
Murphrey, T.P. & Boyd, B. 2003 Student reaction to a multimedia activity to teach leadership North Amer. Colleges Teachers Agr. J. 47 38 43
U.S. Department of Labor 2006 Occupational outlook handbook: agricultural and food scientists 21 Sept. 2006<http://www.bls.gov/oco/home.htm>