When classes went virtual due to COVID-19, Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty and teaching assistants adapted the way they taught in order to continue to deliver a world-class education.

Some of these course adjustments stemmed from knowledge gained from Virginia Cooperative Extension agents, as was the case for Mary Ann Hansen, Extension plant pathologist and instructor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

As an Extension plant pathologist in the Virginia Tech Plant Disease Clinic, Hansen diagnoses plant diseases and abiotic problems. With a small lab that is only able to fit one person at a time due to COVID-19 precautions, she and her colleague, Elizabeth Bush, innovated to create a system that collected virtual plant samples from VCE agents, so service to Extension and Virginians could continue.

They developed training tools for software that allows them to easily collect virtual samples from Extension agents across the state. As Hansen worked with these new tools, she realized that they would also apply to her Plant Problem Diagnosis course at Virginia Tech.

For her course, which is normally taught entirely hands-on, Hansen, along with her teaching assistant, Wendell Hutchens, utilized methods developed through her Extension work to create a revised course that was still participatory during COVID-19.

“By using virtual samples collected through Extension – with identifying information removed – students were able to gain real-life experience with plant diagnosis. The hands-on nature of my class continued, albeit in a new format,” Hansen said.

Students solved real problems – the same problems that Extension agents solve across the commonwealth. On Zoom, students regularly worked in teams in breakout rooms to diagnose plant problems from images that had been submitted to the Plant Disease Clinic. At the end of the semester, the student teams used their new skills to compete in a virtual diagnostics contest. The goal was to diagnose as many of the real plant problems by the end of class as possible.

“It really fostered an atmosphere of collaboration, which is a lot of what plant problem diagnosis is about,” Hansen said. “We really wanted to show them that, a lot of times in the real world, you're going to be collaborating with different colleagues, asking them questions and learning from their expertise.”

All of the virtual diagnosis was done with images of plant symptoms and micrographs on Trello, a project management software that Hansen was introduced to last summer when agents from the Chesterfield County Extension Office held a training session on Zoom. Hansen and her colleague realized that Trello would help them keep track of all the virtual samples coming in to the Plant Disease Clinic and they quickly adopted the software for use in the clinic.

That training session with Chesterfield County’s Extension office directly influenced Hansen’s Plant Problem Diagnosis course by providing successful teaching methods during COVID-19.

Live samples have always been a fixture of the plant diagnosis course, and students still analyzed these samples, just at a reduced capacity. One problem during COVID was that instructors and students had to remain 6 feet apart at all times.

“The students took pictures with the cell phones of what they saw through the microscope by placing their smartphone camera directly against the microscope eyepiece. If they got the image properly focused, they could get a clear image of what they saw. They texted us the pictures so we could let them know if they were looking at the right thing,” Hutchens said.

Later, during virtual class meetings, students worked in small groups to discuss what they had seen in class and compared notes by sharing their images on Zoom.

These techniques could transfer over to Extension programs, including Master Gardener training – broadband bandwidth permitting. Virtual diagnosis lends itself well to training sessions for Master Gardeners and Extension agents alike. And for offices that have microscopes, using cell phones to take close-up pictures of magnified plant samples could help provide useful images for virtual diagnosis.

“This may be the stepping stone that is needed to begin using the tools more broadly. A lot of this material came from Extension and went into the classroom and was really useful for the students,” Hansen said. “And the flip side is that what we have learned in the classroom during COVID will also be useful for Extension training and for identifying virtual samples uploaded to the Plant Clinic’s digital database.”

Trello, combined with Zoom breakout rooms, allows for synchronous or asynchronous collaboration across the commonwealth, without the boundaries of physical distance. It has the potential to improve both the quality of service provided by Extension agents and the student experience in the classroom.

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