Classes in Duke Gardens Support Learning, Transform Teaching

From the arts to medicine, classes use Duke Gardens as a gateway to explore topics

An entomology class checks out one of the many different insect species found in Duke Gardens.
An entomology class checks out one of the many different insect species found in Duke Gardens.

From dance classes to dermatology students, herpetology majors to those studying engineering, the Duke in the Gardens program has served as a gateway to new learning experiences.

Started in 2018, the program connects with people not only at Duke, but also within the community at large who want to use the garden to support their learning needs, according to Kaitlin Henderson, a Duke graduate and University Partnerships & Community Engagement Coordinator at Duke Gardens.

The program was in its nascent stage when the pandemic struck, and the gardens closed. As students began to return, Henderson heard from instructors who wanted to take advantage of outdoor teaching. Still, it was limited.

“We were able to get permission to have an appointment system for these academic groups to hold their classes outdoors,” said Henderson. That afforded her the chance to obtain feedback about how the gardens were being used and to make programming improvements.

Today, professors bring in students to study plants, or design, or simply used it as an outdoor space to calm the mind and feed the creative spirit.

Between July 2021 and June 2022, the Duke in the Gardens program worked with university groups for 88 scheduled visits, 50 classes, 30 wellness programs and social gatherings. As of July, the program had another 28 visits scheduled with more than 1,500 students, faculty and staff coming.

dance class in Duke Gardens. One of the five pillars of Duke’s strategic framework is to transform teaching and learning. The program does this not only by assisting students, but also by receiving assistance from them.

Michael Rizk, assistant professor of the practice of biomedical engineering, has had students work on several projects involving the creation of different models that can be used by the gardens as part of their educational programs. Among them, a Venus flytrap model for teaching about water/soil interactions.

This semester his students are working on an animal sounds model for demonstrating/teaching about mechanisms of animal sound production such as crickets, frogs, cicadas and bees.

“Kati and the gardens have been great ‘clients’  for our projects, and we enjoy working with them,” said Rizk.

Nicolette Cagle, lecturer in environmental science and policy at the Nicholas School, says the gardens allow her to provide a hands-on learning experience for students.

“The native plant garden allows me to teach my students about the native trees of the southeastern United States in my Dendrology course and provides students with a fantastic study resource. The array of ponds and habitats also gives us an opportunity for high-quality bird watching during my wildlife surveys class,” said Cagle.

Dermatology students have come in to learn about plants that cause contact dermatitis and what the reactions can be. Students planning to travel to Mexico came in to learn about plants of significance to Latin American culture.

“They were learning vocabulary relating to plant parts and using their knowledge and experience to compare different cultural practices of gardening,” said Henderson.

Duke in the Gardens and the Student Wellness Center have partnered to expand the Moments of Mindfulness programs beyond the wellness building, says QuiAnne' Holmes, assistant director of programs for wellness, DuWell.

“We were grateful for the ability to collaborate with them, along with other campus partners, to provide opportunities for students to connect with nature, practice meditation and mindfulness, increase a sense of well-being and build community,” said Holmes. “Ultimately, this program helped our students connect to another valuable resource on campus where they can manage their stress and anxiety and uplift their emotional wellbeing routine.”

In recent weeks, Henderson has been conducting outreach programs to different departments learning about ways the gardens can be of use and coming up with programs to support them.

She also is working with the Office of Learning Innovation that supports new approaches to student-centered teaching and active learning.

“Part of the goal is to start to build more awareness,” she said, adding: “That is something we are excited about and want to connect with more instructors to have brainstorm conversations with them.”