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NMSU virtual workshop provides help with plant issues


As they have done every year since 2013, students in the NMSU Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science Department held a plant disorders workshop to help people solve problems they are having with trees and plants.

Unlike previous years, however, state public health orders forced Soum Sanogo, Ph.D., a professor of fungal plant pathology, and 28 students in his diagnosing plant disorders course to create a “plant telehealth outreach,” which connected students, staff and people with plant problems from as far away as Alamogordo and Albuquerque in a Nov. 30 virtual workshop.

“I was pleased with the number of cases (nine) received and their varying complexities,” Sanogo said. “I had five groups of students and my expectation was to have at least one case per group, and this expectation was met.”

“Everyone from NMSU was very helpful,” said Ted Linnert, who is having problems with two ash trees in his front yard that have never fully leafed out and have developed clusters of deformed leaves and bare branches. “The approach was very innovative,” Linnert said, adding that he thought it was “instructive for the students” as well. 

Linnert received a written report from students diagnosing his problem as “witches’ broom,” which can be caused by microscopic agents like mites, viruses and fungi. The students recommended fertilizer and pruning, with a follow-up review in the spring.

“The atmosphere of the class was so similar to a real classroom, it was almost palpable,” said participant Fran Kemp, who is having problems with a desert willow. “It was my first experience with the format. I've attended lectures by Zoom, but the give-and-take of this classroom atmosphere was refreshing. In that way, our college students are not being quite as shortchanged during the pandemic as I had supposed. Their advice was most helpful in several ways, even when I didn't have that particular plant in my yard. Having staff members on hand was also helpful, giving their insights, which fleshed out the suggestions given by the students. It seemed that they brought up solutions and/or added further information only after giving the students a chance to give their opinions.” 

“I think the students and staff did their best to identify this problem with only a picture to look at,” said Peter Sarmiento of Alamogordo, who is dealing with disease symptoms on the bark of an apple tree. “I am very thankful for the staff to offer this service to the public,” he said.

One of the workshop’s student leaders, Fausto Baranzini, said Sarmiento’s apple tree presented the most challenging plant disorder discussed during the event.

“There were many factors that could have caused it,” said Baranzini, who has a double major in agronomy and horticulture. “We have learned in class that we should approach each situation in a systematic way. We need to look at all the factors that could have caused the disease in order to make a more educated diagnosis.”

Photos of the apple tree showed what looked like a canker disease, Baranzini said, but students also discussed the possibility that a lightning strike – “the bark looked burned,” he said – that could have stressed the tree and reduced its capacity to fight disease.

Students and staff couldn’t come up with a final answer to the problem immediately, Baranzini said, but once they see an actual sample from the tree, they should be able to figure it out.

“With this, we learned how to actually look at many factors and not lean into just one side,” Baranzini said. “The thing that worked best was the clear communication from the clients to us. I think this was the major reason why we could interact and actually understand what was going on.”

Student Adam Hopper said the workshop helped him “get hands-on experience in diagnosing plant disorders and how to interact with clients to get information on what they have been seeing in their plants.

“I learned the importance of communicating to get the necessary information to make a diagnosis paired with the pictures presented,” said Hopper, who is a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. “While it's nicer to have that in-person interaction and hands-on approach with the samples, we were able to still communicate well with clients and work as a team to have a productive clinic.”

Kemp said she “enjoyed listening to the students discuss their solutions among themselves like they would in a classroom setting. They weren't shy about discussing their opinions, showing that they are really ‘into’ their subject and that they love what they do.”

“Going forward, even if we go back to normal [face-to-face education] next year, I plan to include the telehealth event as a typical activity in the course because it will provide flexibility to participants within and outside Las Cruces,” Sanogo said.

“We had a case for which the students provided a diagnosis report that was not satisfactory to one of the participants,” Sanogo said. “Evidently, the students were disappointed and perplexed. I saw in this situation a great opportunity for teaching and learning. As an instructor, I was pleased with the situation because it provided the students with a real-life scenario for responding professionally to dissatisfaction. I had a Zoom meeting with the group to which the case was assigned and gave them pointers on how to respond. I edited the group’s response and had the group leader send their response to the participant. This time around, the group received positive feedback from the participant. I then called the participant and had a follow-up conversation on the case.

Contact Sanogo at ssanogo@nmsu.edu.