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As part of their spring biology class, Emily Earle, Kris Frantz and Nick Conte work in the campus garden to learn about plant physiology, sustainability and community service.

Taking the classroom outside

Students learn about plant life from the ground up

Pat Lord

Pat Lord (PhD '86), Lecturer in Biology

Students in Pat Lord's biology class this spring learned some things that they hadn't expected. They learned how the vagaries of nature — unseasonable cold, a blast of pre-summer heat, hungry rabbits — can nearly ruin weeks of work.

They learned about the energy-efficiency of growing food locally.

And they learned that reaching out to the community through the gift of food can be an immensely satisfying experience.

Lord realized that most of the students in her Biology 101 class this spring were taking it only to fulfill a requirement, so she decided to focus the class on food — growing it, cooking it and serving it — to make it more interesting and relevant. Lord trained as an ACE Fellow in 2008, which emphasizes incorporating service-learning into the classroom, so she also included a volunteer/community service component in the class.

Taking cues from a documentary, Food Inc., the class covered such topics as genetically engineered crops, the huge amount of oil and gas used to move food from where it is grown to where it is consumed, the evolution of strains of bacteria that affect food, and health concerns related to food, such as diabetes, obesity and cancer.

As part of the course, half of her students did traditional biology lab work to reinforce what they learned in class, while the other half worked in flower and vegetable gardens at Reynolds Gardens or at the campus garden, located across Polo Road from campus.

In the campus garden, through hands-on experience, they learned about plant nutrition, recycling and decomposition through composting, and the plant life cycle from seed to mature plant.

They planted seeds for lettuce, carrots, spinach and English peas, and tended the plants that sprouted, and brought food scraps and dead leaves and bits of cardboard to compost.

For the service-learning component of the class, the students helped prepare meals and delivered them to the Azalea Terrace retirement community, the Children's Home, AIDS Care Service and the Prodigals Community.

Some students got to know a client at Prodigals, which helps people whose lives have been affected by drug and alcohol abuse. Many of the students had never seen that side of life, Lord said. For them, "It was a life-changing experience to meet people like this," she said.

Sophomore Nick Conte, from Union, W.Va., said he had no experience with gardening when he signed up for the class. "Especially with the sciences, give me something fun and interesting that might pertain to our daily lives," he said.

On the end-of-the year survey about the course, one student noted that the biggest surprise was "the large amount of detailed information that must be known about every kind of plant in order to be a successful gardener."

"Besides learning some biology and providing a service, they found a different way to learn,” Lord said. “I wouldn't have traded this experience for anything."


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