An apple for the teacher

With her fellow educators in mind, Katherine tells a story of virtual botany in the dining hall and letting students be teachers.

When we botanists in the kitchen are quiet for a little while, it usually means we are focusing all of our attention on our day jobs.  Like a garden, the academic calendar has a rhythm that cannot be ignored, and from April through June, I pour most of my time and creative energy into my small seminar class, where we dig into the evolutionary and ecological connections between humans and plants across many time scales and topics. It’s a fun class and the debate is usually lively, but because the journal articles we discuss are often dense and technical, I sometimes worry that we are squelching some opportunities for joy.

To keep things sunny and bright this year, I played around with one of my usual assignments and gave the students a real creative opportunity: make an engaging video about an edible plant species that could be found in their dining halls, illustrating structure, origin and evolution, cultural history, nutrition, etc.  The assignment was directly aligned with one of my goals for the course: to combat “plant blindness” by drawing attention to plants in our daily lives, including plants on our plates.  The videos that grew out of this exercise can now be shared publicly, to the benefit of interested eaters everywhere, not just those in my class.  Select examples are linked below.

Carrots, by Marika Sitz
Asparagus, by Michael Penuelas (Michael does understand the difference between phenology and phylogeny.  He just misspoke.)
Cantaloupe, by Tim Asdoorian
Cuties, by Sophia Colombari Figueroa

Lessons learned
If you are a teacher and are tempted to try this assignment in your own class, please do keep reading. This was a fun but time-consuming and somewhat intimidating exercise that happened to work very well in my class because it absolutely supported my specific learning goals. It may not be as natural a fit for others. Fortunately for me, the students were enthusiastic, and they made some wonderful videos. I was impressed with their creativity, sense of fun, willingness to try new technology, and ability to pull something together under a tight deadline. They nurtured their inner teacher as they became briefly obsessed with melons and baby carrots. I did have to reallocate some class time to talking about this assignment and its technical aspects; however, it was easy to justify taking time to build fundamental science communication skills.

The three most important lessons I learned from making this assignment were

1. there are essentially no technical obstacles to making videos like these,

2. peer review of proposals, story boards, and rough drafts is essential to a good final product,

3. and the process allows a conversation about the critical importance of proper citation and fair use of music and images.

1. Technical aspects are secondary 
To my surprise, most students did not use presentation software to create their videos, even though Powerpoint and Keynote slide decks can be exported easily as video files. One person used an online presentation platform (Prezi) to build her video about “cuties,” but almost everyone else used live video or a series of stills. My own demonstration video, about apples, was built from Keynote, and I relied heavily on the transition options built into that program. The class, however, preferred the old-school look of stop-action and a shaky camera. Many of them simply used their phones or equipment borrowed from the university library to capture the images. Editing was done with iMovie or other widely available software. My colleague Carlos Seligo, an Academic Technology Specialist with a great eye for editing, attended my class one day to work with students individually on their drafts. Of course all of the students were happy to share in class the tricks they had discovered on their own.

2. Peer feedback, early and often
The challenge I gave the class was to choose an ordinary fruit or vegetable and make it interesting – to other people. Smart people can become fascinated with just about anything if they spend enough time with it, but these videos needed to engage naive viewers immediately. As students mucked about waist-high in their research, peer feedback really helped to keep everyone’s head above ground and focused on a public audience.

Early in the quarter, I asked each student to pitch a proposal to two others. Later, they paired off and narrated their story boards – a sequence of sketches outlining the video. Finally, a week before the videos were due, they brought drafts in for editing and technical help. At the first two stages, I provided evaluation sheets with a few simple but specific questions to guide their critiques. The sequence of deadlines, with peer accountability, kept most people on pace to finish without too much pain or too little sleep. It also built enthusiasm and a sense of community around individual projects.

3. Credit where it is due
Everyone who teaches is responsible for inducting students into a broader community of scholars with a set of norms governing the proper use of others’ work. If we make factual claims that are not simply obvious, we should back up those claims, either with our own data or by citing a reliable source that can be verified by the reader. If we use images or music or video, we should use them with permission and cite them properly. An important requirement of the video assignment was proper citation of both scientific and creative content, and not all of the videos fully met the standards. Only those that (mostly) did are linked here.

Fortunately, it is not hard to find images and music in the public domain or released under a Creative Commons license. It is also easy and fun to make your own images and animations. It is much harder to root out all of the places you have erred and to fix them; I’m still on the lookout for violations in my own class lectures and blog posts. The entertaining and unflinching Colin Purrington has written extensively about the many ways we inadvertently teach our students to plagiarize and why we should stop now. I recommend his work very highly to all educators:

High yield
Video turns out to be an excellent medium for botany lessons based on food. Edible plants are beautiful on their own, and their stories can be told with colorful maps and cultural images.

Making a video takes time, but so does (should) writing a paper. In that respect, I did not impose superfluous work on the students. If anything, their efforts yielded more benefits than would a hastily written paper. Because the content – basic structure, use, and history – was straightforward, students sifted through a lot of information to decide what was credible and what would be most interesting. Several drove the narrative with an engaging personal story. Tim’s history of cantaloupe, linked above, nearly brought me to tears.

The video format itself focused attention on connections among parts of the story, integrating disparate bits of information to make them more memorable. It’s true that the videos, unlike a paper, did not really accommodate nuance, but I was willing to give up some depth in this project because other class assignments played that role.

Because the videos were made for a public audience – and we are working to get them played in the dining halls – everyone accepted the responsibility of being a teacher. And they learned that teaching, like learning, can be really fun.

More on “plant blindness”: James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler (2001) Plant Science Bulletin  47:1

4 thoughts on “An apple for the teacher

  1. Pingback: Nibbles: Pig genes, Eating pork, Mesoamerican crops, Apple family farming, Global food security, Wild food in Europe, Student crop videos, Important plants, Teff, Finger millet, Pacific NW grains, African veggies, Genius mangoes

  2. Colin Purrington

    This is fantastic. Among other reasons why it works as a way to learn, having the final product ported to internet is an incentive to take the assignment seriously. I once had my evolution students make 5-min audio files (highly edited, with music clips) for use in a cell-phone-accessed guided tour of interesting plant issues on campus. As for you, my goal was to make the students less plant blind … and that was also how I assessed their product: how they pitched it to listeners who would be even more plant blind. Audio and video compilations are really fun, and kids these days can master the technical aspects quickly. 120% less boring for them than papers or slide shows on the same topic.


  3. Colin Purrington

    In re: uncredited images that are lurking in lecture slides … I’m sure you’ve discovered TinEye already. If not, I love it. E.g.,

    Google reverse image is another route. Of course, neither can find images scanned from books, or images that are not online anymore … but it’s a good tool.

    So, what did students make of the requirement that all images / music be Creative Commons?


    1. katherineapreston Post author

      Tin eye looks great! Thanks for that.

      The students were not at all bothered by the requirement, especially because it didn’t really add time or too much constraint to the project. There are billions of CC songs and images out there. The main violations were misunderstandings and gray areas. Next year I will be even more specific, and I will ask them to turn in a video to be checked before the final version is due.

      It’s an interesting conversation to have, and the class seemed open to it.



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