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The Plant Health Instructor

Volume: 21 |
Year: 2021
Article Type: Lesson Plans

​​​A Short Course in Plant Pathology For Middle School Through Remote Learning​

​Renata Belisário1, Jacob Ball2, Laura Tew3, and Lisa Vaillancourt1,4

1Department of Plant Pathology, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY.

2Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington, KY.

3National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, Nashville TN.

4Corresponding author:

Date Accepted: 01 Jan 2021
 Date Published: 01 Jan 2021

Keywords: online learning, cluster skill, Next Generation Science Standards

Interest in distance education has been growing because of its potential to equalize access to educational resources and promote self-directed learning (Black et al., 2019). We need more high-quality distance learning protocols for K-12 that facilitate active participation of students (NIET, 2020). Remote learning provides an excellent opportunity for plant pathologists to forge new conne​ctions with elementary and secondary school students and educators. Considering that there is a lack of online curricula related to plant pathology, we developed a short virtual course on plant diseases for middle-schoolers.  The course includes three modules with a variety of synchronous and asynchronous activities and a combination of written and verbal instructions to encourage an active learning process. We used virtual learning indicators and strategies developed by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET, 2020) that also fit the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2021) for Life Science. 


The course had the following objectives: 

  1. introduce plant health and plant medicine as professional choices in agriculture

  2. teach the application of the scientific method, including powers of observation and critical thinking, to recognize sick plants in the environment

  3. introduce terminology associated with plant disease symptoms

  4. demonstrate how to recognize and access reliable information on the internet to diagnose sick plants

  5. provide an opportunity to communicate with working plant pathologists to learn more about plant pathology as a career. 

The course framework could be readily adapted for in-person or remote learning for all K-12 grade levels. The course template is available through the Canvas Commons (see link below) and can be modified for educational, non-profit use. Readers without access to Canvas are welcome to contact the corresponding author directly for individual editable course pages or components. All the exemplars and introductory videos are available on YouTube and links to these are provided in the text.

Course Overview

The lesson plans described in this report were developed for a middle school vocational agriculture class. The short course was designed to be delivered over a three-week period, one module per week, with synchronous virtual meetings twice a week.  All activities were developed in collaboration with K-12 education professionals, and based on the Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources (AFNR) cluster skill content standards and the career pathways (2015) from the National Council of Agricultural Education (Table 1).

Table 1: Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources (AFNR) cluster skill content standards and career pathways addressed by this short course, organized by their codes and brief definitions.
CS.01Analyze how issues, trends, technologies and public policies impact systems in the Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources Career Cluster.
CS.02Evaluate the nature and scope of the Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources Career Cluster and the role of agriculture, food and natural r​esources (AFNR) in society and the economy.
CS.05Describe career opportunities and means to achieve those opportunities in each of the Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources caree​r pathways.
CS.06Analyze the interaction among AFNR systems in the production, processing and management of food, fiber and fuel and the sustainable use of natural resources.
NRS.04.02.01.a.Classify causes of diseases in plants and the correct authorities to whom some diseases should be reported.
NRS.04.02.01.bAnalyze a plant disease based on its symptoms, identify if the disease needs to be reported to authorities and determine which authorities it should be reported to.
PS.02.01.02.b.Identify and describe important plants to agricultural and ornamental plant systems by common names.
PS.02.01.02.c.Identify and describe important plants to agricultural and ornamental plant systems by scientific names.
PS.03.03.01.a.Identify and categorize plant pests, diseases and disorders.
PS.03.03.01.b.Identify and analyze major local weeds, insect pests and infectious and noninfectious plant diseases.
PS.03.03.01.c.Devise solutions for plant pests, diseases, and disorders.

Course Delivery and Instructional Design ​

The short course, entitled “Plants Get Sick Too", includes a combination of synchronous instructor-guided and asynchronous independent and project-based activities that are closely aligned with the NIET K-12 Teaching Standards Rubric Companion Tool for Virtual Learning (NIET, 2020). To develop appropriately targeted modules and encourage student engagement, a mix of remote delivery tools was used (Table 2).  All of the course content was incorporated into a Canvas course delivery template, which can be accessed through Canvas Commons. A Bitmoji classroom embedded in the Canvas template was used to introduce each course module. Bitmoji is a virtual classroom environment that includes customizable options for room furnishings and an avatar instructor. The Bitmoji classroom provided a consistent, accessible, and engaging introduction for students to the outline and materials for each module, and a familiar context in which items in the classroom were linked intuitively to videos, audio recordings, and websites. The Bitmoji classroom was used as an organizational platform to direct students to further active learning activities and group discussions, in alignment with recommendations for application of this tool in remote learning (Pazur, 2020). Bitmoji gives instructors a convenient and entertaining way to incorporate features that improve virtual learning, e.g. the ability to introduce and organize visuals to improve student understanding and communicate the goals and structure of the lesson; and to concisely present the course materials in an appropriate order to assist student success (NIET 2020).

Table 2. Technology used for development and delivery of the on-line course modules.
Application/ Software Purpose De​finition URL
CanvasCourse Management, Content Delivery
Learning management platform that allows instructors to develop/ deliver course content and assess student learning, and students to participate in courses and receive feedback about their learning process.


Bitmoji ClassroomCourse Management, Content DeliveryVirtual classroom (storyboard) where teachers can use visuals and hyperlinks to deliver content to students in a fun and engaging way.


ZoomContent DeliveryPlatform for video and audio conferencing, distance education, and webinars. Available for mobiles and computers.
ScreencastifyStudent AssignmentsFree Chrome extension to record, edit, submit, and share videos online.
Google SlidesStudent AssignmentsPresentation program included as part of Google Docs Editors suite offered by Google.
Magnifying Glass + FlashlightStudent AssignmentsFree iphone phone app that provides magnification up to 10X and a flashlight to help with observations and pictures.


PlantNetStudent AssignmentsFree phone app that helps students identify plants with pictures.
PlantSnapStudent AssignmentsFree phone app that helps students identify plants with pictures.
PictureThisStudent AssignmentsFree phone app that helps students identify plants with pictures.

​Since our students all had access to a smart phone or a tablet with a camera, the short course incorporates the use of these for observing, photographing, and identifying plant diseases. Free apps (e.g. Magnifying Glass + Flashlight, PlantNet, PlantSnap, PictureThis) were recommended to assist with observation and plant identification. Students attended synchronous class sessions via Zoom, and completed independent assignments by using Google Slides, Google Docs, and the Chrome extension Screencastify.

Inclusion of these tools does not imply endorsement. These platforms were chosen based primarily on their applicability and accessibility to our students and instructors, in alignment with McQueen (2020). The familiarity of students and instructors with these educational tools, and the availability of resources in each setting, should be considered if this course is adapted for other audiences. Because internet connectivity was sometimes an issue for synchronous remote instructional delivery, this short course was designed to allow asynchronous delivery if necessary, by providing students with the ability to access all the materials via Canvas and complete all assignments independently. This also enabled the students to review any part of the course as many times as they needed and at their own pace. 


The short course is divided into three modules. The Canvas course delivery site repeats the same modular structure. Each module on Canvas includes an introductory section that provides the rationale, background, and objectives; a graphical timeline with meeting dates and due dates for assignments; links to the module activities and to the assignment page containing detailed instructions and guidelines; and a summary of what will be covered in each class. Each module incorporates a hands-on learning activity for the student to complete independently within the allotted time frame.

Each module began with a synchronous virtual class meeting via Zoom during which the instructors provided an overview and walked the students through the module template on Canvas. Objectives, timelines, and expectations were explained and reinforced, and students were invited to ask questions. The instructors then guided the students through the in-class synchronous assignments, encouraging students to engage actively in discussions and other peer interactions. Each module also included an independent asynchronous project-based homework assignment. For these assignments, we developed exemplars to accompany the verbal and written instructions, in accordance with NIET recommendations (2020). The exemplars clarified the standards for the activities as noted by Grainger et al. (2018). Students were encouraged to use them as frames of reference to fully understand the task requirements. The three module assignments were progressive and culminated with a final peer-reviewed video report prepared by each student. ​

Lesson Plans

View lesson plans.

​Expectations and Open Learning ​

This short online course was developed by a team that included plant pathologists and experts in K-12 education.  This ensured that the course content would be not only scientifically relevant and accurate, but also aligned with national educational standards and recommended pedagogy for the target audience and mode of delivery. The course aimed to foster student engagement and active learning by including a diverse array of synchronous and asynchronous activities that introduced basic subjects in plant health and disease diagnosis, along with the application of the scientific method, critical thinking, and self and peer review.

These course materials could be modified for both in-person and hybrid class systems for all age levels, depending on the strategy and educational goals of the program. The course would be suitable for delivery to high school classes using an asynchronous, fully remote approach to encourage independent learning. Younger age groups would probably need more support and guidance to understand the instructions and navigate the technologies. The framework could be adapted to elementary school students with more synchronous and fewer independent activities. For example, an instructor could lead the younger students on a plant disease walk outdoors and demonstrate the process of identifying a diseased plant and collecting a sample.


Thank you to Nicole Gauthier, Melissa Molho-Medina, Paulina Alatriste-Gonzalez, Erica Fealko, and Nathaniel White for their valuable feedback and suggestions to improve the activities for the future. We thank Jamari Taylor for his kind participation in the simulation of the meeting with a plant pathologist. We extend our sincere appreciation to Lee Grace, Ashtarout Ammar, and Xiaohang Yu for recording the exemplars. ​


View appendix.​


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  8. Next Generation Science Standards. (2021). A framework for K–12 science education
  9. Pazur, S. (2020). The menagerie, myths and merits of the Bitmoji Classroom
  10. Williams, S. D., & Boehm, M. J. (2017). Plants get sick too. Ohio State University Extension. ​