Students praise horticulturalist Sharad Marahatta’s new hybrid teaching methods

By all indications, Assistant Professor of Horticulture Sharad Marahatta’s hybrid teaching strategies are extremely successful at keeping students engaged and learning despite all the challenges caused by the pandemic.

By Susan Enright

Student in masks, distant from each other, in greenhouse.
While at the farm lab, students follow COVID-19 and safety protocols, wear masks and closed toe shoes, and maintain physical distance. Greenhouse benches are divided for students to work safely. Photo by Sharad Maharatta.
Sharad Marahatta
Sharad Marahatta. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri.

While most classes at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are now being held online, it can be difficult to do with laboratory classes. Experiments must be conducted in person, methods of scientific inquiry must be experienced firsthand often through trial and error, students must learn how to collaborate with others in the lab or field. For agricultural students, this means they need to get their hands dirty in order for new knowledge to take root.

But this can prove difficult in the age of a pandemic. How can students work effectively yet safely in a greenhouse? What about the students who cannot come to the farm lab because of quarantine or other disruptions? What about students facing pandemic-induced stressors outside of their classwork?

In a survey taken anonymously by students last semester, they were asked which of their professors stood out as successfully transitioning classes during the covid restrictions. One student sung praises for Assistant Professor of Horticulture Sharad Marahatta. “Very incredible professor before and after the switch in course method,” the student says in the survey.

Marahatta, who often shares photos of his labs on Twitter, calls his transition technique “hybrid teaching,” and by all indications, it’s an extremely successful strategy to keep students engaged and learning despite all the challenges caused by the pandemic.

“My students and I meet at the farm for hands-on laboratory,” he says while noting a hybrid component: “But there are about 25 percent of students who are doing their labs from their home.”

Group of students and professor in masks.
Students in horticulture lab and Assistant Professor of Horticulture Sharad Marahatta (center front) take a break from their work to gather for photo. UH Hilo Agriculture Farm Laboratory, Pana‘ewa, Sept. 25, 2020. Photo by Norman Arancon.

While at the farm lab, students follow COVID-19 and safety protocols, wear masks and closed toe shoes, and maintain physical distance. “Inside the greenhouse, we divide greenhouse benches for the students to work safely,” says Marahatta.

Students are responding well to the new normal. At the first greenhouse lab of the semester, students transplanted young poinsettia plants into new pots, labeled the different varieties, and set up a greenhouse system for the plants including irrigation.

Student Austin Parel writes in his lab journal, “Due to the ‘circumstances’ we’re in, we were separated into two groups consisting of 4 or more individuals (all the while maintaining a 6ft distance.) One group was in charge of filling up the pots with a mixture of Sunshine potting mixture + Cinder; 1:1, and the other (myself and others) were in charge of transferring the plants into the pots.”

While the students adjusted to the covid protocols, their focus was on the tasks at hand: repotting the plants, noting soil moisture levels, figuring out fertilizer ratios, installing irrigation tubing, labeling plants.

“Today’s lab was a good experience considering it was our first meeting in person,” writes student Daisy Franco Rodriguez in her lab journal. “Quickly going over the layout of what our course will be covering during our time at the farm. The most I took from this lab was how well classmates worked together to efficiently get all the poinsettias into pots and into the greenhouse. With continued check-ups on the poinsettia throughout the semester, I look forward to seeing these plants grow and be ready for the Christmas season.”

Table with signage for covid protocols, and labels for potted plants.
With covid safety protocols and signage clearly in place, student Taryn Briggs’s attention is on her work of labeling plants. Photo from Briggs’s lab journal.

With covid safety protocols and signage clearly in place, student Taryn Briggs’s attention is on her work. “Today’s activity involved 4 different varieties of Poinsettias; therefore it is crucial that each plant gets categorized in groups near the same variety and labeled visibly,” she notes in her journal. “This saves any confusion for any mix-up as sometimes it can be hard to decipher differences between varieties of the same plant species!”

In addition to the farm and home labs, Marahatta’s new hybrid teaching system incorporates lectures on Zoom that include group discussions, short duration experiments where students document results and present on video to the class, flexible deadlines to alleviate undue stress brought on by covid disruptions, all class resources posted online and easily accessible, and individual student presentations via video with easily received peer review. At special request, students may have a face-to-face meeting with their professor. And as is always the norm with Marahatta’s classes, students are encouraged to submit their findings for publication in peer reviewed journals.

But the UH Hilo Agricultural Farm Laboratory is the heart and soul of the university’s agriculture program and it would take a whole lot more than a global pandemic to nix that component. Student Zyshana Kolokea Kauaula sums up the importance of his hands-on experience at the horticulture lab. “I have learned and been introduced to many new things, some of them being the two poinsettia plants that we dealt with today, that being ‘Christmas Wish Red’ and ‘Ice punch’.  However, one of the major things I learned today is the watering system of the greenhouse and how it functions. In conclusion, I believe these new teachings and hands-on learnings will be one of the main foundations in my agricultural education.”

Six photos of greenhouse operations: potted plants, watering plants, soil, labeling.
Lab journal entry of Zyshana Kolokea Kauaula.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.