Horticulture class challenges students to put their knowledge to practice

September 17th, 2021


Savannah Michalski, center, senior in horticulture, and her classmates dug up the sand and gravel that used to be the walkway’s old subgrade on the south side of Enrollment Services Center. When all this material is removed, students will replace and recompact it.

By Amber Friedrichsen

Most students at Iowa State University define their educational pathways by the classes they take and the subjects they study. For those in Horticulture 444: Landscape Construction and Management, though, the concept of an educational pathway is much more literal.

Students in this class have begun reconstructing the paved walkway around the stairs south of the Enrollment Services Center. Grant Thompson, assistant professor in horticulture, said this project encompasses many of the course’s objectives and will require students to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom.

“The class learns how a site gets built in a way that is manageable on a residential or small commercial scale,” Thompson explained. “We take into account how to measure an existing site, how to lay out a new site, and how to implement a design by creating scale drawings and transferring them to the landscape.”

Thompson collaborated with Barb Steiner and Rhonda Martin with the university’s facilities, planning and management department to find a job site for students to work. He is grateful for their help in organizing the project and obtaining necessary supplies.

“Rhonda helped with the overall approval of the project site with the university, and Barb handles the day-to-day coordination with class,” Thompson said. “Both Barb and Rhonda have been key people in making this class work and providing this hands-on experience for students.”

Students attend lecture to learn about concepts they will use during the course’s lab period. They are administered individual Readiness Assessment Tests to test their knowledge, and then complete the same assessment in groups. This type of team-based learning allows students to discuss their answers and come together to form agreements.

“Readiness Assessment Tests ensure students know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to do these things safely when we get to the job site,” Thompson said. “By the time lab rolls around, we can just get to work since there is a good understanding of what needs to happen and how.”

Students must also give each other feedback within their groups. This encourages them to identify what each person can contribute to the project, and areas where they can seek improvement.

During the first week of the semester, students assessed the job site by measuring it and taking inventory of the materials present. In the following weeks, they learned about proper site demolition in lecture. They proceeded to demonstrate what they had learned on the job site by dislodging all the bricks in the walkway and surveying which ones they would use for its reconstruction.


Grant Thompson, center, assistant professor in horticulture, and his students examined the site's original pavers. They found that about 90% of them were still in good condition and will be reused for the reconstructed walkway. 

Next, the students dug up the layers of sand and crushed rock below the pavers. “We will end up putting more crushed gravel down, then we will compact it, put a little sand on top, and relay the bricks on top of that,” Calvin Mackin, senior in horticulture and the teaching assistant for HORT 444, said of the next steps of the reconstruction process.

Taking part in these kinds of projects is what motivated Mackin to be the class’s teaching assistant. He believes this course will be useful to students in the future because it offers real-life experience they can apply in their careers. Even though the class revolves around construction, Mackin said it can benefit students with an array of different interests.

Savannah Michalski, senior in horticulture who is taking the landscape design management option within her major, wants to design construction projects and be the one overseeing them. Participating in this class allows her to appreciate what it’s like getting her hands dirty.

“I want to be the person in charge of projects like this – I want to be the person who designs them. But I also think it’s important to understand how construction works,” Michalski said. “That way, when I am creating designs, I know what goes on behind the scenes.”

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