Botany Curriculum Developed for Nontraditional Students

A curriculum designed to recruit, educate and retain college students from nontraditional backgrounds in the study of botany has been created at Carolina.

The curriculum, BOT 2.0, offers online and in-person training that weave together four key themes: botany, environmental conservation, literacy in metadata (data describing data – the content of computer files) and social computing technologies such as Facebook.

BOT 2.0 is delivered through Web 2.0, a second generation of the World Wide Web that includes blogs, wikis and social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

The curriculum will be used for the first time in late July at Carolina in a session called BotCamp, attended by 17 students from UNC, Alamance Community College, N.C. A&T, N.C. Central and N.C. State.

The invitational program will include outings with botanical experts to Carolina’s Arboretum and Herbarium and other natural settings. Students also will take information management and technology sessions at the School of Information and Library Science on campus.

“A long-standing goal of the collaboration between botany and information science has been to use information technology to link students with the natural world,” said Evelyn Daniel, associate dean for academic affairs and professor in the school.

Jane Greenberg, Francis Carroll McColl term professor in the school and director of its Metadata Research Center, and Alan Weakley, curator of the UNC Herbarium – which is part of the N.C. Botanical Garden at Carolina – led the two-year effort to create BOT 2.0, funded by a $192,290 National Science Foundation grant. Besides the school, herbarium and garden, UNC units helping to develop the curriculum were Information Technology Services and the Renaissance Computing Institute.

“We want to empower students, not only by using technology, but also by enhancing their knowledge of botany and teaching them about the power of metadata and tagging as they build a collective memex,” Greenberg said.

Tags are descriptions in the code that is used to create Web pages. Memex – short for memory extender – is an idea about the classification of information that was pioneered by Dr. Vannevar Bush in his article “As We May Think,” published in 1945 in The Atlantic Monthly.

“Web 2.0 technology offers an innovative and exciting opportunity to engage students in botany throughout the state of North Carolina and beyond,” Weakley said.

Traditionally, Greenberg said, botany education has focused on lectures and exams, with students memorizing complex descriptive terminologies and taxonomies.

“This conventional approach is at odds with knowledge about how people learn science,” Greenberg said. “Researchers have demonstrated that students learn more effectively when they are actively engaged in the learning process and self-evaluation. BOT 2.0 applies this active learning approach using Web 2.0 social computing technologies to increase student engagement in botanical science and address known recruitment and retention challenges.”

The challenges can include memory retention, information overload and time to reflect on what is learned, she said. Nontraditional students – women, minorities and people who do not usually pursue the study of botany – are especially recruited for BotCamp.

“BOT 2.0’s technology is conceptually modeled on a memex, a memory augmentation framework that allows students to share and re-find digital information through the application of structured metadata and collaborative tagging,” said Michael Shoffner of the Renaissance Computing Institute and the project’s technology architect.

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