“I had no idea that any of this was out there.”
This is the refrain that Bodie Pennisi and Kris Braman hear over and over when students at the University of Georgia enroll in the online course they developed to enlighten students to the wide world of biodiversity, pollinators and their role in protecting both.
Co-taught by Pennisi, a professor in the Department of Horticulture, and Braman, head of the Department of Entomology, the official title of the course is “Discover the Wonderful World of Plants and Pollinators and Your Place in It,” but it is more often referred to as “Plants, Pollinators and You.” The highly popular online service-learning course is offered every summer through the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES).
Pennisi and Braman now invite up to 80 students to join them each summer in reconsidering the landscapes around them through the course, which is taught entirely online.
In the class, students are introduced to arthropod-mediated ecosystem services, pollinator health, pollinator-plant interactions and pollinator habitat enhancement, with a particular emphasis on urban environments and conservation. Students learn how to identify different pollinators and their habitats along with strategies to attract and protect pollinators through plant selection and citizen involvement.
“I’ll admit that I was not really excited about the insects at first, but the more I learned about biodiversity and pollinators, the more interested I became in how all these things interact. Kris was really the one who inspired me to look at landscapes in a different way,” said Bodie Pennisi, professor of horticulture at CAES.
Because they are not learning in a traditional classroom or even through traditional methods, students in Pennisi and Braman’s service-learning course are required to step into their communities to put their learning into practice.
“Basically, we ask our students to approach a community partner — whether that’s a local office building, city hall, fire department, UGA Cooperative Extension office, library or some other place with greenspace — to ask if they can assess pollinator diversity and work with the partner to develop a plan to improve pollinator habitat,” Pennisi said of the class’s capstone project.
For some students, this project, along with the connection to their community partner, becomes a meaningful way to take their online learning into the real world. Pennisi and Braman agree that this engagement makes all the difference for students seeking authentic learning.
“There’s a great need for students to continue their education remotely during the summer. Some are working jobs, others are completing internships, you name it. I wanted to offer a course that fulfilled an upper science requirement, helped the environment, and ultimately invited students to have fun with the content they were learning,” Pennisi said. “When I first wanted to have this course classified as an online service-learning course, that designation did not even exist!”
With its unique designation, the course is creating students who value pollinators and their habitats, recognize the relationship between entomology and horticulture, and see themselves as active participants both in their learning and in protecting our environment.
“Students seem to walk away from this course not only with an appreciation for plants and pollinators and an understanding of biodiversity, but with a real sense of empowerment when it comes to the conservation mission,” Pennisi said.
Pennisi and Braman hope the course promotes long-term learning, with students taking what they learn forward into their careers, where they live, the conversations they have with their children, and much more.
“At the end of the course, what we really hope is that these students become lifelong advocates for conservation issues of all kinds. We hear that students take this conservation mindset beyond the course itself, and that’s what will make our causes effective, not only on the local scale but also on the global scale,” Braman said.
To get involved in pollinator protection and conservation, consider participating in the Great Southeast Pollinator Census.