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Eric Nelson and Michael Milgroom are enthusiastic proponents and practitioners of engaging students actively in the classroom. Eric Nelson and Michael Milgroom are professors in Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology at Cornell University and active members of APS. They are highly innovative and creative in their approaches to teaching on at least three counts. First, they are strong proponents of the “flipped” classroom, in which students take responsibility for learning outside of class from reading assignments, instructional videos, and other media; class time is used for discussion and application of newly acquired knowledge to novel problems. Second, they use primary research literature in innovative ways (small, structured reading groups) to teach not only the relevant content but, more importantly, the process of science and how we know what we know. Third, these two professors teach collaboratively in all facets of the two courses for which they share responsibility, collaboratively preparing lessons and facilitating discussions.

In 2012, Nelson and Milgroom launched a new undergraduate course, Plant Pathology (PlPa) 2950, Biology of Infectious Disease. This course accommodates approximately 30 undergraduate students per year from diverse majors, including plant science, biology, biology & society, animal science, and global health. This course consistently gets rave reviews from students because of the amount the students learn (a sample of student feedback is found below). This course exposes students to knowledge of plant, human, and animal diseases, particularly the common concepts shared regardless of host. In addition to the engagement of students, Nelson and Milgroom are both fully engaged in all discussions, and students learn much from the interactions—sometimes disagreements—between the two instructors. Weekly discussions of current primary research literature is conducted by breaking the class up into groups of five to six students, each with an assigned role for understanding the paper. They also used a “Reacting to the Past” role-play case study, one of which was featured in the campus newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun (September 5, 2012).

In 2014, this pair of instructors, using the same innovative teaching techniques, combined efforts in another course. They adapted PIPa 4330, Disease Ecology, previously taught solely by Nelson, by adding more emphasis on evolution; the course is now collaboratively taught by Nelson and Milgroom and was renamed Infectious Disease Ecology and Evolution. This year, Nelson and Milgroom developed a freshman biology seminar in infectious diseases to further expose students to the primary literature and the excitement of science and discovery in host–microbe interactions.

These seasoned teachers encourage students to think broadly about health and disease and are committed to getting students excited about infectious diseases of all hosts, but especially to diseases of plants. For many students, this is their only exposure to plant pathology. Nelson and Milgroom devote considerable time interacting with, advising, and mentoring students in their classes. They also recruit alumni from PlPa 2950 to serve as undergraduate TAs, further providing them with a collaborative learning experience. The overall benefit is reflected in many student comments (below). They both have the ability to excite students’ curiosity and motivate them to learn. They are eager to discuss pedagogical approaches and ideas with students and colleagues and are intellectually immersed in their teaching. Their complementary differences in perspectives and experiences—coupled with their spirited repartee—creates a stimulating classroom dynamic for student learning as reflected in the student comments below (extracted from student evaluations).

“This course is absolutely amazing! Truly, I enjoyed waking up and coming here. It was more open than most of my other courses (well, all of them) and I feel I learned a great deal more through this method of teaching than any other. And the professors are some of the kindest, nicest, intelligent, open-minded people I have ever come across. Truly mentors.”

“The team approach GREATLY enhanced my learning experience. Not only did it present a variety of ideas, but it taught me that it was okay to challenge an idea.”

“I loved the class so much. Going into the class I just thought it would be a regular class on a slightly interesting topic but the course really got me to think about the world in a different way and blew my mind more than once. Thank you for a great semester!”

"I really enjoyed this course, it was taught by some of the best professors I have ever had. I’ve come out of this course having a totally different impression of disease biology and now I feel like I can even understand some of the newest epidemiological research that is being published. I wouldn’t have even thought that possible last year. Thanks again Professors Nelson and Milgroom for all your hard work in putting this class together! I give it a 10/10, would take again if possible. Great course!”

“One of my favorite classes at Cornell. I learned so much and could actually enjoy the course instead of worrying about cramming or little details that will be on the exam. I was challenged as a scientist and a student. My interest in infectious disease grew even more.”

“This was one of the best ‘learning’ experiences I have had. As students, we are constantly judged and graded on what we know, and this class taught me that it’s ok to not know something. When the journal articles were getting a little dense, I was worried that maybe I wasn’t cut out for this...and then Dr. Nelson made a brief comment in class that he didn’t understand some of the journal articles and needed to look things up. In that moment, it was like someone said it’s ok, as long as we make the attempt to better understand the material. If that’s not teaching someone how to learn, I don’t know what is.” 

As illustrated in these comments, both Nelson and Milgroom want students to learn. Their innovations are clearly successful and they are very deserving of the APS Excellence in Teaching Award for 2015.