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How can we turn the problem around?

Lee Hadden hadden at wingate.edu
Sat Mar 4 12:26:56 EST 2000

Finally---- we're getting back to some plant-ed matters that matter!!
I've been teaching college students for 25 years [30+ if you add in TA
experience, which is when I got turned on to teaching].  I've been
teaching our Plant Biology course here for 18 years and have had, more
recently, much the same experience as others are sharing.

I hated "Botany" when I had it as a college sophomore.  Of course that
was back in the dark ages when bacteria, blue-greens and other algae,
and fungi, and some protozoans were all lumped together as plants and
covered in that Botany course in college [Muhlenberg College].  Life
cycles ad infinitum, detailed phylogeny, fossil names and relationships
to extant plants, detailed anatomy, tissue development, and memorizing
microscopic detail from more slides than I could keep up with,  etc.
turned off the basic interest I had in plants stemming from childhood.
But in my Senior year, and with the same prof, the Advanced Botany
course I took started to turn all that around.   Lots of field work,
reasonable taxonomy taught effectively, and interesting selected topics
got us below the survey level and into details we could focus upon and
master [as opposed to cramming and memorizing just to get through the
next test].  It was the encouragement of that professor, and one other,
that moved me to apply to and attend graduate school [in vertebrate
ecology or limnology I thought].  A Plant Physiology course followed by
a [Plant] Physiological Ecology course captured my attention and I was
hooked on plants for life [the study of them that is!].  Working with
live plants, field work, being immersed in one discipline, and the
impact of stimulating, challenging, and encouraging professors made the

All of this to say that from my personal experience as a student and my
observations of students I teach, the first encounter with Plant
Biology, no matter how well taught [and that's not a given
unfortunately] is not instantly  [or ever] appealing to students in
general, pre-med, etc. students in particular.    It's hard to overcome
18 years of plant neglect in one college course experience and to appeal
to the "when will I ever need to know that [in med school]"
mentality.    But I try.

I am encouraged by the fact that almost every year, one or more students
will say something like, "This wasn't as boring as I thought it would
be!"  And some have gotten turned on to plants [one even went into a
master's degree program in plant biology!].  The high point was a letter
I got last semester from a student who wrote to thank me for pointing
him [unknown to me] in the direction of pharmacology and to let me know
that he will get his Pharm. D. degree this May.  He said that if it
weren't for the Medical Botany / Ethnobotany portion of our course, he
would never have thought about it. The medical aspects intrigued him and
he looked into pharmacology and the rest is history.

Most students have little awareness of and very little appreciation for
things botanical.  Public schools virtually ignore it [incoming Biology
major ignorance re Plants is incredible], and what they have gleaned
over the years is so fragmentary and unfocused as to be useless.  So,

I would like to propose a real plant-ed challenge.
Can we compile a list of topics and experiences that would constitute a
reasonably common  basis for a contemporary Plant Biology or Botany

What should the undergraduate biology major encounter in an introductory
botany course?  Or in any other plant course? What knowledge base and
competencies should they have?  [And maybe what should non majors
encounter for institutions that offer one?]

I have looked at many botany syllabi on-line and see a lot of
similarities and occasionally some interesting unusual features.  I've
tried to incorporate the best of the courses I took myself [re content
and methodologies], and definitely avoid the overly and unnecessarily
tedious aspects or turn them into tolerable if not interesting,
components.  I ignore some things in order to go into more depth with
others, and give the students as much hands on, field, and live specimen
experience as possible, along with emphasizing and putting in context,
relative to their career and educational goals, the significance of
plants.  [ It always amazes me that pre-meds, etc., will challenge
having to take a Plant Biology course as a pre-med Biology major -- ours
is required.  Where do they think pharmaceuticals directly or indirectly
come from?  And will they never see a patient with symptoms caused by
eating toxic plants or plant parts?  And what about the
nutritional/biochemical applications and current "botanicals"  trend?]

What do you colleagues expect and do, and what results do you get?  What
ought to be fundamental in lecture and lab?  What topics and
methodologies work and make the course or components of the course come
alive?  What texts and lab manuals have you found effective?  What
problems do you still have that we all could troubleshoot?  What  can we
offer to entering plant biology faculty? What can we suggest that will
get "experienced" teachers out of ruts or out-of-date syllabi?   How do
we incorporate the exciting cutting edge biotechnology so that it's not
ignored, and perhaps might turn some students on, without neglecting
traditionally fundamental topics?

It seems to me from my observations of this on-line group, that we have
a tremendous resource in our own experiences and insights.  Can we not
develop a model botany course or at least a  core for such a course?

I'd love to get my Plant Biology syllabus in high gear and move faster
into the new botanical millennium.  But I need assistance rather that
operating in a virtual vacuum [I'm the only plant faculty member here;
also department chair; also full-time single parent.  Can't you hear my
violin wailing which I made myself and sometimes show botany students
who see no use to wood other than to burn!?? Actually it's a fiddle to
them--violins are too long-hair, high brow].  What about a clearing
house for our syllabi and a group to make them available online or via
mail?  Or drafting a composite syllabus?  Or designing a checklist of
topics anyone could respond to so that topics included/excluded from an
intro course could be submitted and compiled?

Any thoughts?  I appreciate your insights and assistance as always.  And
if you see any value to any of this, I'd be willing to edit and post a
topics checklist for any one to respond to, and then compile responses.
It would make a good spring/summer project with possible significant
returns in the classroom.

Lee Hadden
Professor and Chair,
Department of Biology
Wingate University
Wingate, NC  28174
                                                 Jon-- is this the type
of ending you preferred to a vcard?
hadden at wingate.edu


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