The students in our University of Rhode Island field botany class exclaimed with surprise as they tried to balance atop lopsided hummocks of tussock sedge (Carex stricta). The mounds arose between expanses of boot-sucking sphagnum moss. Red cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) dotted the shimmering surface around them. This was the first time most of the students had seen cranberries in the wild—a powerful learning moment. Memories of the sour explosion of the cranberries would become associated with the comradery of learning how to differentiate this flowing fen from a typical bog—or how to identify the three-way sedge (Dulichium arundinaceum) on the fen’s edge and the delicate beaked sedge (Rhynchospora capitellata) breezily waving in the center of the scene. Six months later, in March 2020, the pandemic had hit. As university classes pivoted online, we, as instructors, were forced to figure out how the unique shared experiences of the previous fall’s classes, held in the field, could be translated meaningfully into a remote format for the upcoming summer and fall offerings.
Field Botany and Taxonomy has been taught at the University of Rhode Island since the late 1940s. Professor Elmer Palmatier, a local botanical legend, established the class and was known to say: “There should be no monotony when studying your botany.” His legacy—students quickly learning hundreds of wild plants—has been maintained by a lineage of memorable naturalists. Today, it continues in summer and fall classes led by Professor Brian Maynard, botanist Robin Baranowski, and their teaching assistants. The summer is an intense marathon to identify every plant found between late May and the end of June—over 300 plants in a typical term. The sessions are composed of fast-paced, four-hour meetings, held four days a week. In the more traditional fourteen-week fall semester, the class heads out together twice a week to explore natural habitats around Rhode Island and identify about 250 plant taxa using sight, scent, texture, and even taste. Students collect and bind samples in herbarium presses for both courses and are constantly quizzed on plant names in the field. The courses cover both native and naturalized plants, with detailed units on grasses and mosses. The fall session becomes a race against time, given the threat of frost, and attention turns to autumn colors and winter twig characteristics.
The coronavirus pandemic forced virtually all college courses online, many for the first time. Higher education as we knew it would change dramatically. While adequate tools for online education have been around for nearly two decades, most professors and students of the natural sciences had little experience with online learning, as it had never been necessary before. Now we had just a few weeks to move our courses entirely online before students returned from an extended spring break. Our most significant concern—other than fears about keeping ourselves and our students safe from COVID-19—was that we would not be able to provide our students with the quintessential field botany course experience.
After much deliberation, we settled on a progressive learning structure that involved “flipping” the course. Instead of loading students up with plants to memorize through the usual sage-on-the-stage approach, we would hold the students responsible for finding and identifying plants on their own. While the traditional field course had emphasized learning a shared list of plants, this version would prioritize the development of skills that students could employ to identify any plant they encountered.
Using an online learning platform called Brightspace, we created a series of modular lessons about the major groups of plants: wildflowers, trees and shrubs, ferns, and grasses. Each module included daily activities to train students on identifying the plants that they found on their own. We centered these activities around multimedia tutorials on how to navigate four different field manuals (one for each major plant group) and two of the online keying systems found on the Native Plant Trust’s GoBotany website. This was the first time we had used online keys for the class. The students would identify plants using the field manual or online keying system taught each week and then document their observations with photographs and notes using iNaturalist, a citizen-scientist app and website. These digital herbarium vouchers, as we call them, were formatted according to a template we developed and took the place of the herbarium collection the students would have created for the in-person class. The new keying and vouchering skills of our students culminated in a capstone project. Each student designed a vegetation survey in a nearby natural area safely accessible during the pandemic. Students used iNaturalist to record the plants found along a transect line, pacing step-by-step and pausing at regular intervals to document the plant species encountered. The integration of iNaturalist into the class and requiring a vegetation survey were other firsts for the course.
The summer session began in late May 2020 with eighteen students enrolled. Instruction was entirely asynchronous, meaning students could watch presentations and complete assignments on their own schedule. Students communicated with us by email, text, phone, and video calls. Challenges included making sure students had the necessary technology and access to natural spaces. We also needed to ensure that students understood the language of botany and, perhaps most importantly, that they could distinguish between native or naturalized plants and those in managed landscapes (which might not be found in their field guides).
Fortunately, most students had smartphones that automatically tagged the photos uploaded to iNaturalist with GPS data. After keying and identifying a plant, the student would create a voucher with three clear images taken in the field and a description of the plant’s shape, foliage characteristics, and other identification features. We guided students through the process of taking clear images. As a set, the photos should zoom to capture the entire plant silhouette, the branch arrangement, and finally up-close details of foliage, twigs, and flowers. Vouchers also included the steps used to identify the plant in the specified field guide, a link for that plant to the Consortium of Northeast Herbaria (a digital collection of herbarium sheets from dozens of herbaria), and an image of the plant on a plain white background with a digital herbarium label. The students posted the photos and notes to the class iNaturalist page, where the instructors, teaching assistants, and other iNaturalist users confirmed or challenged their identification.
As new observations popped up on the iNaturalist map for the class, the difference from the in-person course was apparent. Instead of everyone learning the same plant in the same location, all in Rhode Island, we now racked up twenty-three unique records of sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) from southern Maine to Philadelphia. One student reported plants sighted in a Maine salt marsh. Another documented vegetation in Manhattan parks.
Each week, the students expanded one voucher into a presentation and posted it to a discussion blog. The presentations included a range map and notes on plant family characteristics, habitat, ecological relationships, and historical human uses. Blog conversations around these presentations became surprisingly animated: students enjoyed finding similarities in their plant-hunting adventures and learning new facts about plants they had also discovered, as well as about plants they had never seen before. Our learners went above and beyond our expectations by sharing photographs of the habitats and wildlife surrounding their botanical entries. Pictures of herons flew back and forth in the discussion posts, along with wild tales of adventurous plant-hunting escapades. Even a cinnamon-colored housecat participated in the fun as a model to show the size of cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) fronds against a large enough white surface for the digital herbarium voucher.
These blog entries fostered engagement and interactions that we had thought were only possible in person, when we could walk back to the vans after foraging cranberries, with fen water sloshing in our boots and conversations gushing. As it turned out, the blogs still allowed the students to share their experiences with excitement and passion. In the last week of the class, the vegetation survey capstone tested the students’ plant identification skills. After proposing a study area (which ranged from vacant lots to pristine forests), each student walked their transect and identified every plant species they found, posted their findings on iNaturalist, and produced a final report that they shared with the class.
As the course unfolded, we found that the switch to the online format had created new learning opportunities. Students continued hands-on learning with greater independence. Resources designed for the course could be reused by students time and again, and we improved accessibility by captioning videos and narrating PowerPoints. Several students completed classwork from out of state, adding to the diversity of plants that the class found. The asynchronous schedule allowed students with personal or work obligations to participate fully. While our students all reflected that the course was time-intensive, they enjoyed the motivation to spend more time outdoors each week.
After our success with eighteen summer students, we took stock of what worked best and ramped up for a fall course of fifty students. We ended up using many of the same tools developed for the summer class, but the material was now spread out over ten weeks and focused on the vegetation we would encounter in New England in late summer and fall. An added challenge of the pandemic was that students were scattered far and wide—from Maine to Philadelphia—and could be forced into lock-down or quarantine at any time. For quarantined students, we prepared contingency samples, which included collections of photos and descriptions of habitat and plant characteristics that we observed in the field. While many fall students still attended remotely, we were finally permitted to meet in person, in small recitation groups, if students could get to campus. Twice a week, we helped up to five in-person students at a time with their keying and plant vouchers.
We were initially concerned that students would learn only a fraction of the usual number of plants, but these concerns were assuaged by the depth of knowledge the students acquired for each plant and the confidence they gained in keying on their own. Across the summer and fall classes, our students posted nearly three thousand individual observations to iNaturalist—about 360 unique species in each class. This number far surpassed the 300 or so plants taught in the past. Moreover, our students can now apply their plant identification skills anywhere in the world. We foresee that these tech-savvy citizen scientists will continue to use iNaturalist, including for BioBlitzes, which are intense twenty-four-hour events in which groups find and identify as many species of life as possible in a specific area.
In explaining to our students how to learn their plants, we always stress that the best way to learn is to teach. The act of teaching others is a higher-level step in the learning process. The same students who initially had shied at the prospect of the online format shared plans to use their new knowledge for future careers and reported passing along what they had learned to friends and family. A select few students admitted to not liking plants before this class but noted that they learned to appreciate and even love the plants they encountered. Even as we return to in-person instruction this summer, we will use many of the tools we developed in 2020. We have committed to teaching a blended (online and in-person) field botany course to thirty-six students this fall. Moving forward, we expect to keep several of the teaching strategies that encourage independence and foster flexibility: keying modules, digital plant vouchers, a vegetation survey capstone experience, and the integration of iNaturalist and GoBotany. We are growing with the plants we teach. While the format may be different, the class is definitely a new sport off an old tree that we will continue to cultivate.
For more information
Visit our class iNaturalist sites at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/uri-bio-323-summer-2020 and https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/uri-bio-323-fall-2020.
GoBotany—the Native Plant Trust’s online tool for plant identification—can be accessed at https://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org/. This provided a valuable complement to the four field manuals that we also taught: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb and Gordon Morrison, A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs by George Petrides and Roger Tory Peterson, Northeast Ferns by Steve Chadde, and Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes by Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman.
Thanks to iNatauralist for permission to republish the map in this article. iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
Emma Brown is completing her master of science degree at the University of Rhode Island and writing a thesis analyzing the experience of taking field-based courses online during the pandemic. This summer, she will return to her native Delaware, where she practices horticulture and compiles the Delaware Native Plant Society newsletter.
Brian Maynard is a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Entomology at the University of Rhode Island. He teaches courses in plant propagation and production, landscape management, arboriculture, and field botany. Brian received the Gold Medal Award from the Massachusetts Horticulture Society in 2009 and the Award of Merit from the International Plant Propagator’s Society in 2016.
Citation: Brown, E. and Maynard, B. 2021. Field botany in the time of COVID-19. Arnoldia, 78(4): 2–6.