Plant Taxonomy Takes a Unique Approach to Learning

Students learned about plants in a class with unique learning methods.

Most students wouldn’t expect to be singing a song about a Venus fly trap in class, but it’s just another day in Dr. Althea ArchMiller’s plant taxonomy course. Not only does the course employ interactive ways of better understanding plants, but it challenges students to display their knowledge of the material through unique and creative projects. 

In plant taxonomy, ArchMiller’s students gain hands-on experience with the identification and classification of plants. The course emphasizes the various medical, culinary and cultural properties of the plants, and their roles in our everyday life.

To gain a more in-depth understanding of these plants and their structures, the students keep a plant-drawing journal to learn the basics of botanical illustration. They identify the plant, photograph it, and conduct background research on the origin, cultural history, medical applications and culinary uses. From there, the students personify them, writing a 200-word description that “captures the essence of their plants.”

“Students in my class partnered with students in Dwight Mickelson’s 3D sculpture class to ‘adopt’ these flowering plants on campus,” says ArchMiller. “The sculpture students worked from the images and descriptions to build reed and tissue sculptures that captured the personalities of the plants as interpreted by the botany students.” 

From the combined efforts of both classes, a joint art show was presented in the bridge gallery on campus that showcased the plants, descriptions and photographs. 

Students also gain hands-on experience in the field, identifying plants in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and camping in the North Dakota Badlands for three days with entomology students.

“The class, which is cross-listed between biology and environmental studies, qualifies as a field class, so students experience at least 24 hours of time outside,” she says. 

ArchMiller’s class features various other unique projects that set plant taxonomy apart from a typical biology course. Among them is the “Botany of Food” project, where students cooked and ate a plant-based, four-course meal. Menu items include Plant Defenses Salsa and Caryophyllales Salad.

At the end of the semester, students gave a final plant family presentation, each adding their own unique features to the project.

“Students all added a special aspect to their presentations, including cooking special food, creating satirical commercials, writing poetry, writing and performing songs, and writing and illustrating a children’s story to present their plant family.”

ArchMiller’s unique class requirements challenge students to think about their coursework from different viewpoints compared to the typical lecture-style class, which is a cornerstone of a quality liberal education.

“This class combines deep understanding of an advanced disciplinary subject, in this case plant taxonomy, with applications to many different disciplines through the lens of liberal learning,” she says. “Rather than just focusing on the technical memorization of plant anatomy and names, we think about the interactions between these plants and other aspects of our lives and campus.” 

Her recommendation to current and future students is to welcome the unique learning methods of courses like plant taxonomy.

“My advice is to embrace the many different ways that learning at a liberal arts college can provide,” she says. “Yes, you may be challenged to learn drawing in a biology class, but you may also surprise yourself.”