Active Learning at the Sustainable Student Farm

This past August I traveled to California for a workshop on scientific teaching at University of California, San Diego as part of my training for a project with the Biology Education Intersegmental Collaborative. One thing abundantly clear after this workshop, and often mentioned in teaching circles, is the importance of “active learning”. Active learning is defined in numerous ways, but can simply be thought of as student-centered education, in which the emphasis is on learning rather than teaching. There are many generic tools educators use for creating active learning spaces, such as “high structure” course design, creating objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy, or employing the 5E Instructional Model. Perhaps the more straight forward explanation of an active learning model I’ve come across is one often cited by our Department Head, Dr. Adam Davis, derived from The Coalition of Essential Schools, where the students are considered the “worker” and the teacher their “coach” (though a student “player” makes more sense for the analogy to me). However it is defined, the point is clear: active learning is key to effective education, and we are ripe with opportunities within horticulture.

Horticulture is an applied science; thus we inherently employ active learning into our curriculum out of necessity. Still, creating a more student-centered classroom is an iterative process, and we continue to do this well through utilization of resources such as our Sustainable Student Farm. The Farm provides a living classroom for students to get their hands dirty and make connections from concept to practice. Managed by Matt Turino, with the help of student interns and certificate-seeking workers, the Farm offers six acres of diversified vegetable production on a real-world scale.  Both our Vegetable Production (HORT 360) and our Local Food Systems (HORT 205) classes have made frequent visits this semester. The Vegetable Production class works on the farm nearly every week, managing their own vegetable plots and learning aspects of production from seed to harvest. We may give them information on plant families, for example, but the Farm is really doing the work, where a carrot is transformed from something in a book or grocery store, to an experience literally pulled from the ground.

Everyday I am grateful to be in a field where I not only learn to apply scientific rigor and appreciate complex biological processes, but also learn the tactile art and practice of plant production. If the tangible, hands-on approach to learning appeals more than time spent in a lecture hall, consider taking a class in horticulture.

Keep growing,

Jack McCoy, Ph. D.

Lecturer of Horticulture

Department of Crop Sciences

P.S. Check out this recent feature of our teaching faculty member, Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor, on her work in nature and mental health.

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