How to Teach Botany Lab Remotely: Get Off Zoom, Use Real Plants!

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Michael Song, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing changes to campus life have posed severe challenges for undergraduate instructors. Adapting to remote instruction was especially difficult for classes traditionally taught using in-person laboratories, which focus on the hands-on investigation of objects of inquiry as the major mode of teaching. When I began planning for teaching Integrative Biology 168L, “Plants: Diversity and Evolution,” I was worried about how students could meet the learning objectives of being able to recognize one hundred plant families, identify their defining characteristics, and explain their natural history without being able to see the plants in person. I understood that these skills could not be properly taught over Zoom so I designed a course that turned students’ neighborhoods and the nature around them into their own personal laboratories. In order to allow students to interact with their neighborhoods as “in-person” labs, I used the citizen-science application iNaturalist, which I found to be a powerful tool for laboratory instruction in a remote format. Students’ success in meeting the learning objectives suggests that iNaturalist can also be a vital component of labs as we return to classroom instruction.

Inspired by Darwin and his backyard experiments, and in consultation with the GSI Teaching & Resource Center, I designed a synchronous-asynchronous semester plan. The asynchronous labs centered around sketching taxa and then going outside and observing these taxa using iNaturalist. In the iNaturalist assignments, students took photos of plants and described the morphological features of the plants they found, then keyed them out using a dichotomous key. We would then review the morphology and natural history of the plants synchronously. Students were mailed a hand-lens that attaches to a smartphone camera and a sketchbook. Other than getting students outside, using iNaturalist facilitates learning in three major ways. First, the map allows students to find specific taxa around them and to learn about their local flora. Second, the AI helps students ID their plant observations, which lowers the barrier to entry that may intimidate students when confronted with learning a large number of Latin names of many different ranks. Third, students can upload photos that they ID to a certain rank (e.g., Family) and then later be assigned to ID the plant to species and evaluate the IDs of their peers. By first memorizing, then classifying, then distinguishing, and finally evaluating the IDs, students are able to fully develop the skills of a field biologist. 

To make sure that this mode of instruction was accessible for all students, I used pre-course surveys and midterm evaluations, and I availed myself of the resources of the Disabled Students’ Program and the Student Technology Fund. One potential problem could have been that not all students would be living in neighborhoods where they would have access to exploring many local plants. iNaturalist allows students to upload “casual” observations of planted, ornamental, or garden plants which can turn the parks, florists, nurseries, and botanical gardens of a city into a student’s laboratory. One would be surprised to find that, even in an urban setting, the vast majority of plant families covered can be found! Students from Hong Kong to SoMa were able to fully participate and even expressed their delight in now being able to see how even a concrete jungle has a rich flora. 

To assess the efficacy of this method to achieve the learning objectives of the class, I used the traditional metric for natural history classes: the practicum. Having taught this course both in-person in 2017 and remotely this year, I saw that students performed better at identifying plant families this semester than previously. Not only did these students learn the skills of a naturalist, but each observation they made (around 2,000 IDs by the end of the course) was logged and used for citizen science via the iNaturalist community. Going forward, I believe that the ways we adapted pedagogy to online instruction — centering student-led discovery and creativity using iNaturalist — can inform and enhance in-person course design.