Student farm

How to teach a plant science lab during the COVID-19 pandemic?- A blog by Yufei Qian

botanical conservatory pitcher plants

The year 2020 has been "unprecedented" in many ways because of the COVID-19 pandemic. UC Davis has moved most of the classes online so that undergraduate students can access them remotely. However, this way of teaching can be hard for some classes, especially when there is a discussion lab.


Botany and Physiology of Cultivated Plants (PLS002) is a lower division introductory plant sciences class to all undergraduate students, including but not limited to biological sciences majors. I have got the chance to be a TA (teaching assistant) of this class and had a very different teaching experience. In other years, there is a 3-hour lab each week, carefully planned by the instructor, Prof Peter Freer-Smith, alongside with the lectures. There are also field trips to the on-campus botanical conservatory and the student farm at UC Davis. Every week, students will get a lab manual in advance and perform the experiments during the lab time. This year, the instructor and the TAs are recording the visits and doing all the experiments. Then, we upload videos onto CANVAS, a teaching platform, for 76 students who are in different time zones around the world.


Student farm

My preparation of a video usually starts by listing all the important aspects on a piece of paper. For example, if I want to talk about how plants respond to salt water, I would first introduce what a solution is and how to calculate the amount solute and solvent to prepare for different concentrations of salt water. For more details, it is necessary to explain the biological phenomenon behind this experiment such as osmosis and the movement of water molecules. To elaborate a little bit, I would also talk about what "isotonic", "hypotonic", and "hypertonic" solutions are in a broader biological science setting to students. With this nicely structured outline in hand, I can now prepare a script for the video.


Making videos requires great teamwork. There are two TAs including me, a professor, and a member of the greenhouse staff to assist with all the plant materials we need. With little experience in filming, we quickly realized that a peaceful greenhouse can have many background noises. Therefore, using a clip-on mic is crucial to make high quality soundtracks in the videos. Demonstrating an experiment this way is very different from doing one in the lab by myself. The most important part demonstrating how and why we designed the experiment in certain ways rather than just adding chemicals from pipettes to tubes.


We have had positive reviews from the students and I'm having fun teaching a lab with videos. Even though the students are missing all the nice hands-on part to growing English cucumbers in a greenhouse and enjoying the fresh fruits from their plants, they can still watch the growth of plants over 8 weeks without missing all the experience. Let's hope that the pandemic will be gone soon and the teaching greenhouse will be full of eager students again.

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