Teaching Horticulture by Augmenting Reality

Horticulture: the science and the art of growing
fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants
I am a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. I teach students
about plants. Specifically, I teach students about these plants.
Here’s how we end up teaching horticulture most of the time.
Here’s how we would like to teach horticulture most of the time.
In Minnesota, most of the academic year is not suitable for learning about plants while
outside ; and even if an instructor wants to teach outside, success is dependent on
weather on any given day. A couple of years ago, I started meeting with
some colleagues to start thinking about solutions to this problem. The group that assembled
shared a common interest in teaching with technology, so we began brainstorming and
coming up with potential solutions. Soon, the idea of using augmented reality
as a teaching tool was brought up. Even if it didn’t work, at least it sounded
neat. We figured we could use technology to allow
students to learn about plants on their own schedules in a way that allowed them to interact
with plants in the landscape. This type of learning is referred to as ‘situated learning’.
Here is a picture of our display and trial garden. Students often are taken here during
laboratory sessions to see various plants. A simple version of augmented reality would
allow students to see markers overlaid on a image or map on their mobile device. These
markers could help guide a student through the garden and allow them to obtain more information
related to each marker. Our ultimate vision included image recognition
of plants by mobile devices. There are some apps that begin to approach this, such as
Leafsnap, which allows users to identify tree species by taking a picture of leaves. However,
it became clear early on that a less sophisticated approach would be needed given the current
state of the technology. After some searching, we finally found a platform
that would suit our needs. ARIS games was developed by a team at the
University of Wisconsin. ARIS is an open-source platform that allows for both the creation
and playing of mobile games, tours, and interactive stories. The only major drawback to ARIS was
that it could only be used on iOS devices. If we could deal with that issue, we figured
that we could use this tool to teach horticulture. The next step was working out the technology. We were able to deal with the problem of device
access when we were awarded funding by the United States Department of Agriculture to
support the project. Great! All I needed to do was buy a bunch of iPads, set up some sort
of check out program, and we would be all set!
…and then the questions started rolling in: Who will be in charge of checkout?
What kind of ipads? How big?
What about a warranty? Are you going to buy cases?
How will we keep these secure? What if one breaks?
How will they be stored? How will they be updated?
How long can they be checked out? . . .dealing with each of these questions
took a lot of my time, but by the beginning of fall semester, we were ready to roll out
the use of ARIS in my course, which is a small enrollment turfgrass science course, and also
in a large-enrollment introductory horticulture course of over 100 students.
In one of the experiences developed for my course, students were led through a landscape
and were asked to enter their observations about various grasses commonly used in Minnesota
landscapes. This allowed the students to better understand the characteristics of these grasses
prior to learning about them in the course. Soon after the ARIS games started, there were
several complications ‘Mine didn’t work’
‘I just did mine inside’ ‘I can’t log in to ARIS’
‘What if I didn’t finish?’ ‘I couldn’t get a good signal’
‘I am scared to checkout something as expensive as an iPad’
‘I dropped the iPad on Folwell Ave.’ . . .dealing with each of these complications
took some more time, and lots of help from University staff, especially from the IT support
in our college. But, even with all of these complications,
many students enjoyed the augmented reality learning experience. When we surveyed students,
most of the problems they experienced were technical, things we should be able to fix
in future semesters. In the larger course, we used ARIS a second time in a way designed
to lessen the risk of connectivity issues; students responded more positively to this
experience and we will soon determine if the game improved student learning.
Based on our preliminary results, there is promise in using augmented reality to teach
horticulture. One day, learning about the trees and plants you walk by every day may
be as easy as holding up your phone.

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