Academic journal article NACTA Journal

Teaching Plant Morphology in an Active Learning Setting with Digital Microscopes

Academic journal article NACTA Journal

Teaching Plant Morphology in an Active Learning Setting with Digital Microscopes

Article excerpt


Plant identification courses are integral to forestry, horticulture, landscaping design, natural resources and weed science curricula. Instruction typically entails teaching plant morphological features in field, nursery, greenhouse, conservatory, or landscape settings. Current data suggest landscape horticulture employers rank plant identification skills highly for career success (Berle, 2007). Moreover, natural resource professionals indicate that graduates entering the field require improved plant identification skills (Harrison, 2014). Unfortunately, many students arrive at their discipline with little to no botanical training or experience with important morphological traits useful in identifying plants (Wandersee and Schussler, 2001). Here, we describe our efforts to augment active learning strategies and enhance understanding of key botanical concepts via incorporation of computers equipped with digital microscopes in a plant identification course.


The pedagogical methods referred to as active learning enhance learning and engage students through dynamic, student-centered instruction. Inclusion of these methods boosts understanding and knowledge retention while improving performance on multiple learning assessments (Freeman et al., 2014; Prince, 2004). We applied an active learning framework to engage students in concepts related to leaf and floral morphology and fern reproductive structures (i.e. indusia, sori). Leaf morphological concepts included textures, apices, margins (e.g. complexity, lobing, rolling, dentation), bases, shapes and surface features (e.g. arma- ment, glands, hairs, scales, venation). Floral concepts centered on flower gender and symmetry, insertion of floral parts on the receptacle, and calyx and corolla morphology. We used laboratory fees to purchase fresh cut flowers for all floral activities and razor blades for flower dissection. We utilized purchased flowers to emphasize core concepts rather than demonstrate flowers from class-specific plants. We encouraged students to use microscope image capture and annotation capabilities during all activities. The framework consisted of:

1. Primary Concept Inventory - We provided each student with two leaves of six distinct plants from future class periods. We asked students to tape leaves of the same species to one notebook page, and then create a column along the left margin listing concepts described above. Students then created columns labeled "pre" and "post." We asked students to observe leaves, and then attempt to define each morphological type using their current knowledge and no external sources. We did not require technical definitions. Students worked independently and placed answers on the "pre" list. We employed a similar approach for floral and fern morphology. These activities offer excellent assessments of preliminary knowledge.

2. Guided Lecture - We developed guided lectures based on our in-class reviews of primary concept inventories. Invariably, direct teaching methods were necessary at this point. We distributed another set of leaves, or flowers, from about ten distinct species. We randomly grouped students in fours, and each group moved to a designated microscope station. Stations consisted of one digital microscope (T-1050, Ken-A-Vision Inc., Kansas City, MO) and laptop computer (Toshiba Satellite c850) running the microscope software (Applied Vision 4, Ken-A-Vision Inc.). Group members self-selected roles such as microscope operator, software operator, note-taker and spokesperson. We used guided lectures to technically define various morphologies, conduct comparisons, and discuss morphological features. …

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