MSA Educator Spotlight: Emily Cantonwine
Interviewed by a member of the MSA Education Committee
- What is your name and how long have you been teaching mycology?
My name is Emily Cantonwine. I have been teaching mycology for 15 years at Valdosta State University in Georgia.
- What is the title of your mycology-focused course and what is the level of your course?
My current rotation includes three upper division courses that are mycology-focused: Mycology, Plant Pathology, and Biodiversity of Macrofungi. They are split-level undergraduate/graduate courses, but only one seat is reserved for the graduate-level. I have also co-taught Mycology as a study abroad course in Ireland.
- What is your favorite activity taught in this course and what is the goal of this activity?
My favorite activity in plant pathology is a lab where students observe a set of unlabeled slides and use their lecture notes and textbook to figure out which ascomycete reproductive structure each slide shows. In addition to diagramming and labeling what they see, the activity encourages the type of attention to detail needed to distinguish these structures. It also gives students practice using resources to answer their own questions.
In mycology, the lab is set up as a scavenger hunt and at the end of the semester each student submits a scavenger hunt report with photographs of the items they found. I like this approach because it’s fun for students (who doesn’t like a scavenger hunt?) and it allows me to try new things in the lab that may or may not work. Over the last few years, I have added baiting pond water for oomycetes and chytrids, staining herbaceous roots for arbuscules, and monitoring rabbit dung succession with minimal stress despite some perfectionist tendencies. The scavenger hunt activity exposes students to the important fungal structures covered in the course and provides opportunities to develop observation and microscopy skills. Students also get to experience the joy of discovery science.
My favorite activity in Biodiversity of Macrofungi is a series of homework/presentation assignments that students do for a selection of species. For each species homework, students write out the relevant dichotomous key steps (we use Mushrooms Demystified mostly) and use the glossary to define all new terms from the key. They also use the Latin/Greek glossary in Mushrooms Demystified to interpret the scientific name; I picked up this idea from Tom Volk. In class, students do a brief presentation about their species, and share the Latin/Greek interpretation of the binomial and their new definitions. The latter two become part of the content evaluated on the exam. After all the presentations are complete, students work together to generate a top-5 list of the most useful field and lab observations to distinguish the set of species discussed. As the course continues, the class does the same to distinguish each set of species with prior species sets (i.e., polypores vs boletes). After I grade the top-5 lists, these become part of the course content evaluated on the exam too. It sounds like a complicated activity, but after a practice round, students complete the work as expected, and (seem to) enjoy the process. The goals of this activity are to deliver content in an engaging way and to support soft skill development, such as critical thinking, reading comprehension, teamwork, and knowledge synthesis.
- How is this activity assessed (e.g., exam, essay rubric, other)? In other words, how do you know if it’s effective?
The lab work is assessed as a graded assignment and an end of the semester lab practical. I doubt the lab activities are any more effective for content delivery than an alternative method, but student engagement is high compared to some of the more traditional strategies I’ve tried. The homework/presentation assignments are graded for completeness and accuracy at the time of delivery, and again on the unit exams. I have some confidence that these assignments are effective because students’ work improves throughout the course, and most are nearly fluent in the language of macrofungal mycology by the end of the semester.
- What advice would you give to someone who is new to teaching a mycology-focused course or who is looking to update their previously taught mycology-focused course?
My advice is to learn as much as you can from instructors you admire (this is a great topic of conversation at MSA meetings) and be kind to yourself as you figure out what works for you. Also, never stop learning about fungi!
Dr. Cantonwine’s shared teaching materials are found on the MSA teaching resources page and include:
- Mycology scavenger hunt activity (online and in-person versions)
- Two publications on active learning mycology lab exercises
- Fungal Diseases of Wildlife (online activity).