Thompson awarded for uprooting traditional learning and replanting it online

Grant Thompson standing by evergreen tree, talking to students
The plant identification course taught by Grant Thompson, assistant professor of horticulture, typically involves many hands-on learning experiences, including weekly walking tours to identify plants. Thompson altered the course last fall so students were able to learn in-person, online or a combination of both.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Grant Thompson, assistant professor of horticulture, developed a comprehensive virtual learning option for his plant identification course. Students were able to learn in-person, online, or a combination of both.

In recognition of his efforts, Thompson was presented the Excellence in Remote Instruction Award, just one of several Iowa State University COVID-19 Exceptional Effort awards given to faculty across campus.

Horticulture 240: Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines for Landscaping typically involves many hands-on learning experiences, including weekly walking tours to identify plants. Last fall, however, those in-person experiences were not always an option.

“We really had to figure out how to have students go online if they needed to,” Thompson said. “If they were quarantining, or needed to be away from campus, or may not even be here in Ames at all.”

Thompson created an extensive online library of content to offer his students – whether they were learning in-person or online. Students had access to various content to help them learn and study the 200 plant species taught in the course.

One way Thompson educated students was with individual plant profiles. Videos of each plant were taken, and Thompson recorded his voice over the film explaining how to identify the plants.

“We made individual videos of the plants where we would narrate key features – where they grow, how big they get, how their leaves grow,” Thompson said. “I think one of the advantages of doing things virtually is getting to see plants out of season. You can see what it looks like in the summer or when it’s in bloom.”

Production of virtual content began well before the start of the fall semester. Marcus Jansen, graduate student in horticulture, was behind the camera gathering plant photos and videos on Iowa State’s campus throughout the summer as Thompson’s graduate teaching assistant.

“We have live specimens of almost all of the species we teach right on campus,” Jansen said. “The fact that we get to use campus as our classroom is our biggest treat.”

It is important that students see the plants from many angles and perspectives. Identifying small details among species can play a big role in determining one from another.

“It was quite the undertaking to photograph all those species,” Jansen said. “Not only to get a picture of how they look in the landscape, but also taking pictures of plant features like the foliage, stems, buds, fruit, and bark.”

The course also includes a weekly three-hour lab where students identify various types of trees, shrubs and woody vines on campus. This year, Thompson recorded these plant walks and posted them online for students who needed to participate virtually.

Even though recording plant walks, snapping photos and gathering footage contributed to student success, there were some drawbacks to virtual learning that were hard to avoid. Part of plant identification is using senses other than sight, which is hard to do through a computer screen.

“Plant identification is also a sensory thing – the way something feels or the way something smells,” Thompson said. “Seeing these plants in person probably makes a difference, but we did our best to try to capture it, so our students have different ways to learn.”

Thompson provided as much information as possible to make the course flexible and accessible for all. This approach is something he and Jansen hope will benefit students in years to come, whether or not there is a global pandemic.

“We were put in a sticky situation this year, but we were able to take that rainy day and find the silver lining in it,” Jansen said. “I think the message of this pandemic is innovation, so I am glad we got to do that with the Horticulture 240 class.”