Dr Terry Stewart - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Dr Terry Stewart (Senior Lecturer, Institute of Natural Resources, Massey University) - a Excellence in Innovation Award winner 2003
Senior Lecturer, Institute of Natural Resources, Massey University
Terry Stewart developed a unique tool for teaching plant diagnosis. The software, DIAGNOSIS, allows tutors to author and present case studies for students to explore as a type of ‘adventure game'. This tool allowed Terry to move from an information-transfer style of teaching to a problem based focus where students are required to analyse an unhealthy or damaged crop scenario and provide recommendations for solutions. Terry states that when students experience real-world problems that they must explore, evaluate and solve, they see the relevance of what they have been taught and the relevance of what they still need to learn. Terry's success in developing and implementing DIAGNOSIS stems from his dedication to teaching, his understanding of the pedagogical and practical uses involved in providing students with skills and relevance to real-world problems and his familiarity with the capacity of modern software to provide ‘virtual' learning environments.
I wasn't always going to be a teacher. In fact, when I was younger nothing was further from my mind. How I found myself with 20 years of teaching under my belt is a consequence of many things but mainly a passion for my discipline subject fanned by a few inspirational teachers and lecturers I had as a student.
Growing up I had a passion for science. The natural world in particular fascinated me, and was given a kick along from an enthusiastic biology teacher in high school. At university I studied microbiology and, again, in my third year I was lucky enough to be taught by an extraordinary lecturer on plant diseases. It was a revelation that plants as well as humans and animals could get diseases. His enthusiasm was infectious and my interested in plant pathology was engaged.
After postgraduate study on plant pests and diseases, I spent a few years working for an agricultural chemical company as a field researcher. Part of my job was to train the field salesmen as to what these new chemicals did, and what they controlled. I also was expected to speak at grower meetings. At first this terrified me, but gradually I grew to enjoy it, and then love it. Being able to communicate my interest and passion in this applied field of biology was extremely rewarding. So much so that it struck me that perhaps my vocation was in tertiary teaching, a field I had not previously considered. Fortunately for me, a vacancy for a junior lecturer came up in Alma Mata, which I applied for and won. The year was 1983, the height of the horticultural boom in New Zealand. In those days university staff didn't get much teacher training. You were essentially given a few words of encouragement and dropped in front of 160 students in a large lecture hall and expected to ‘go to it'. Happily, large classes generate lots of energy and I found it very stimulating.
Technology and teaching
At that time another love of my life was computer technology, having been captivated by it when I bought my first microcomputer in 1981. I had taught myself programming, and it wasn't long before I could see the potential of this technology in teaching. From 1984 to 1989 I wrote several small crop management simulations, where students had to ‘grow' potato, maize and apple crops. These taught the principles of pests and disease management and gave students practice in making control decisions given different scenarios. I got the students to compete in teams and there was often a chocolate bar or similar prize for the winners. These programs took students beyond the ‘chalk and talk' experience, and got them to draw on their knowledge in order to make the kinds of decisions common with managing crops.
The idea for the innovation that eventually won me a Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award first occurred to me back in 1987. The problem was this: crops can get sick, just like people and, like people, the sickness needs to be diagnosed. How could I give students experience in this process? I would give lectures on pest and disease diagnosis but the activity is one that is both an art and a science. In a difficult case, there can be many possibilities and it is analogous to detective work. Technology offered a solution. What was needed was a kind of virtual reality or simulation using text, pictures and/or video where students could explore the field scenario as if they were actually there. They could examine plant parts, collect specimens, dig in the soil, talk to a grower and research the past history of the crop. In fact, they could be given the opportunity to explore anything that might be relevant and a great deal that was not. Just like real life. In their simulated lab, they could test their specimens for pathogens and pesticides, or check them out for smaller pests.
It was from this idea that the scenario-based training program DIAGNOSIS was born. Not only did it provide an environment whereby students, working usually in pairs, could explore a diagnostic scenario, the system also tracked how students approached the process, and provided feedback. Most importantly, once they had finished their session, students had to not only give a diagnosis, but also justify it. This justification was important as students had to demonstrate they had an understanding of the cause of the problem, rather than just taken an educated guess. They also had to provide a recommendation to the grower.
DIAGNOSIS in action
The use of DIAGNOSIS is best illustrated with an example. In one scenario, the students find themselves in a young apple orchard with a rather unhappy grower. The crop is failing and the trees are dying. The cause could be a number of things. Only by careful observation and, more importantly, the correct interpretation of those observations would the students be able to deduce the correct diagnosis.
Students can examine roots, leaves, fruit, branches, the soil, the weeds, spray equipment, fertiliser applicator and a variety of other objects. They can ask the grower questions on spray regimes, variety, history of the crop, irrigation and a host of other things, relevant or not. They can collect plant parts for testing or further examination. The initial clues present in the scenario reveal that the most affected trees are in the low-lying areas, and they are showing a nonspecific dieback. This points towards a root problem, one that requires high soil moisture. Students should recognise this, but more investigation is needed as root problems can be caused by many things. Digging up some roots and examining the crown of the plant would show characteristic symptoms of Phythphthora crown rot. Researching the weather would reveal a wet spring and asking the grower about the variety would show one that is prone to this condition. Drainage is poor in the orchard, another factor that would favour this disease.
After developing a shortlist of possibilities (hypotheses) students would work through these to disprove or strengthen them.
As in real life, red herrings abound. There are mites on the leaves, but close examination shows these are being held in check by predators. The weeds are also dying, but interrogation of the grower reveals the use of an apple-safe herbicide the week before. Many eelworms are found under the tree. Some eelworms can cause root damage but in this case an examination of their mouthparts shows they are harmless organic feeders.
At the end of the exercise, the students would type in a report giving (hopefully) a diagnosis of crown rot, caused by Phytophthora cactorum, and their justification should include all the clues that lead them to that conclusion. They should recommend removal of the trees and an improvement in the drainage of the property. This student report is saved to disk and I would mark it, normally out of ten. The program automatically provides feedback on what they did (or didn't) do, which is appended to their disk file to be printed out and returned with their marks. This saves me writing comments manually.
Lighting the fire with problem-based learning
Students love the program. One common comment was that the exercise drew on much of the knowledge they had gained in related subjects like soil science, plant physiology, entomology, plant pathology and agriculture/horticulture production, and brought it all together to solve a problem. In other words, it was problem-based learning. When I was developing DIAGNOSIS, I had never heard of the term ‘problem-based learning'. I simply had a teaching problem that needed solving. In designing a generic version of DIAGNOSIS, called CHALLENGE, which could be used in any subject domain, I did some reading on the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the DIAGNOSIS scenario-based learning system fitted into the paradigm of problem-based learning perfectly.
I've always tried to look for solutions in teaching problems, and have been fortunate enough to also have a good knowledge of what technology can offer in this regard. I've also used it to facilitate extramural courses and presentations. However, I do not believe in incorporating technology into a course just for the sake of it. To me, that is putting the cart before the horse. Technology should enable you to do something valuable, that otherwise you could not do. It should solve a teaching problem, as it did in this case.
In the promotion of DIAGNOSIS, I've managed to link up with many teachers worldwide in my profession. For the committed ones, the ones where teaching was truly a vocation, I found we all shared the same goals and problems. There was also something else we shared. Passion!
"I've always tried to look for solutions in teaching problems"
Last year I discovered this quote by the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire". When I think back on my student days, there were notable teachers that did truly light that fire. I believe this is the prime role of the tertiary teacher. Facts can be gained from textbooks. It's our responsibility to make the subject come alive with our passion and enthusiasm, showing students the relevance of what we want them to learn. Only then are we truly teachers.
It was flattering to win this award. I'm very grateful to the many colleagues that encouraged and supported me in my development of this particular innovation. I intend to use some of the prize money on employing a graduate student over the vacation period to help construct many more crop protection teaching scenarios. I also may use it to present a paper on this teaching approach at an international conference.
Peer and Student Comments
I can attribute the beginnings of my interest and enthusiasm for plant pathology in large part to Dr Stewart and the friendly innovative environment of the Plant Health Department to which he was a major contributor.
Pauline Weeds, ex-student and now Mycologist/Plant Pathologist at Landcare Research, Auckland
I have known Terry for more than 20 years and he has always been interested in ways of capturing the interest of students and channelling their enthusiasm into learning. The development of DIAGNOSIS from the germ of an idea through the increasingly sophisticated versions to the fine-tuning of 'CHALLENGE' to meet a wider scientific and business market is a tribute to Terry's ability and determination to succeed.
Dr Peter Long, colleague
He has never deviated from the journey of teaching improvement that he has embarked upon.
Professor Ken Milne, Terry's HOD 1983-1998
Terry's success in developing and implementing DIAGNOSIS and the other teaching products he has employed at Massey stems from his dedication to teaching, his understanding of the pedagogical and practical issues involved in providing students with skills of relevance to real world problems and his familiarity with the capacity of modern software to provide ‘virtual' learning environments. The fact that DIAGNOSIS has now been developed into a more generic problem-based learning tool is further evidence of the excellence of Terry's original and innovative idea.
Geoff Norton, collaborator and Director of the Centre for Biological Information Technology, University of Queensland
It was fun, and requires thinking, research, etc.
Student, commenting on a DIAGNOSIS exercise
Please accept my compliments on a superb teaching tool. Your DIAGNOSIS instructional aid is exactly what I have been looking for in my introductory classes in plant pathology.
Dr Raymond Schneider, Plant Pathology Teacher, Louisiana State University