Introduction to Horticulture (HORT 100G) at New Mexico State University (NMSU) is a four credit hour, general education course that provides an introduction to the physical, biological, and chemical principles underlying plant growth and development in managed ecosystems (NMSU, 2007). Students complete laboratory exercises that complement principles covered in lectures. Enrollment in HORT 100G averages 50 students, and horticulture majors typically represent 25% of the class. The class meets for three 50 min lectures and one 2-h laboratory each week. Each of three laboratory sections has 15 to 17 students, with a teaching assistant (TA) assigned to each laboratory section.
At NMSU, instruction in HORT 100G routinely requires laboratory activities in a greenhouse setting, but detailed instruction on greenhouse operation and management is reserved for an upper division course, Greenhouse Management (HORT 488). Regardless of the class level, it is often impractical to construct a greenhouse as a class activity. With the average cost of a greenhouse ranging from $10/ft2 to $15/ft2, teaching institutions might find it financially prohibitive to build a greenhouse as a class exercise. The resulting lack of hands-on knowledge of how to construct a greenhouse is a potential gap in many horticulture curricula.
In contrast, field hoop houses average less than $1.5/ft2, thereby overcoming the financial limitation of building a greenhouse. Also, hoop houses are relatively easy to construct. Because they can be constructed easily and inexpensively, field hoop house construction might offer an excellent opportunity for immersing students in an active learning environment. Hoop house construction and operation can provide a unique opportunity for experiential learning in horticulture, basic agricultural construction technology, and greenhouse crop management. Environmental monitoring inside and outside a hoop house could help students better understand the impact of the environment on crop production. Furthermore, lectures in introductory horticulture courses such as HORT 100G can be matched to multiple hands-on activities that involve hoop house construction and operation. Hoop house construction can be a powerful learning tool because in an introductory course students benefit immensely from hands-on laboratory exercises that relate to classroom materials (Bradley et al., 2003).
A hoop house is a structure that is used as a greenhouse or a season extender. These structures have a characteristic semicircular hoop shape with a frame typically constructed of lengths of PVC pipe (Upson, 2005). In New Mexico, a hoop house is usually covered with 6-mil-thick ultraviolet-resistant clear plastic (Jimenez et al., 2005). The expected life span of a hoop house cover is three growing seasons. In the United States, small producers often construct hoop houses to produce and sell fresh horticulture crops to local outlets beyond the normal growing season. To meet the technical needs of those producers, the Cooperative Extension Service conducts workshops and publishes pamphlets on how to build inexpensive hoop houses (Jimenez et al., 2005). However, hoop house construction is not an integral part of the curricula in U.S. horticulture programs.
A decision case study was used to help students select the site for high tunnels and other protected-environment structures (Spaw and Williams, 2004). However, we are unaware of any project that used the actual construction of a hoop house as an undergraduate learning tool. The objective of this article is to describe how the construction and operation a hoop house as a laboratory activity provided experiential learning opportunities for students in an introductory horticulture class. Our approach was to use the active learning environment that hoop house construction and operation created to provide students with basic agriculture skills such as greenhouse construction technology, crop production, calculating fertilizer application rates, and greenhouse irrigation and instrumentation.
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