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Sci-Comm in the Cactus Garden: Jenne Stonaker's New NSC Course

PWR Lecturer Jenne Stonaker in the Arizona Cactus Garden

A great many gears that turn smoothly in our program would grind to a halt, and possibly fall off their axles, if not for the clocklike labors of Jennifer Stonaker. While marveling at her generosity and work ethic is already a leading pastime among PWR folks, I have recently found equal diversion in poring over her pedagogy. More specifically, I had the benefit of learning about her new PWR elective course, “Communicating Science in Public Spaces,” which culminated earlier this week in a colorful and compelling exhibition of student work at Stanford's Arizona Cactus Garden.

At this frenzied juncture of the academic year, in the midst of bringing her fascinating course to fruition (no pun accomplished), Dr. Stonaker kindly explained its genesis to me, as well as the truly awesome pedagogical opportunities it has afforded her.

Apparently, it all began with that most relatable of parental endeavors: filling time.

“I first started visiting the Arizona Garden during the pandemic,” she explained. “My kids were doing virtual learning, and we would often come up to campus in the afternoons for something to do. One day we decided to check out the garden, and I was immediately curious about the space — particularly about the different plants — but it was hard to find any information, either in the garden or online. 

“So, I started thinking about developing a course that could both provide information about the garden for the community and give NSC students a new mode of communication to work in (science museum exhibits). However, when I proposed the class last year, I wasn’t sure what would be possible to do at the garden, so I focused more generally on developing exhibits for science museums and other spaces where science is presented to the general public.”

While Dr. Stonaker found an enthusiastic interlocutor in Arizona Garden coordinator Christy Smith, her concept also met with some adversity in the form of constraints around what was and was not doable in the cactus garden.

“The first big one is that it was important to keep the look and feel of the space as a family garden, and not a botanical garden so we weren’t able to put labels on any of the plants. We also weren't allowed to permanently install any large signs in the garden. That was when I decided that we’d do an online exhibition that could be accessed by QR code. Later on, I added the ‘pop-up’ exhibition day … as a way to give students a chance to create something physical in addition to the virtual, even if only temporarily.”

Dr. Stonaker describes this course as her first experience with an element of community-engaged learning. “It was an amazing opportunity for the students,” she said, “but it was also more logistically challenging to teach, as we had to work closely with our community partner, people that maintain the garden. They were so helpful though, and they even provided an outside review of draft exhibit materials. I think that really helped the students see the power of getting feedback on works in progress.”

The pop-up exhibition, which took place on June 3, put all that progress on full display. A recent PWR email thread does not exaggerate in calling this exhibition “AWESOME” and “terrific”—to which reactions I would add the phrase “unqualified success.” After watching these sixteen young people explain their meticulously arranged installations—on topics ranging from the cactus garden’s long history to the difference between cactuses and succulents (at last I know!)—one could not but come away with an enlarged perception of what is achievable, for instructors and undergraduates, in just nine weeks. Making science intelligible to a lay audience is a skill, one that Dr. Stonaker has cultivated in her students with characteristic diligence and creativity.

Students presenting in the Arizona Cactus Garden
Pop-up exhibition in the Arizona Cactus Garden.

Asked to describe the most rewarding aspect of teaching this course, Dr. Stonaker was unequivocal: “Definitely being able to share the student work with the broader community, and knowing that it is going to be a useful resource for anyone visiting the Arizona Garden in the future. It’s a magical place, even if you don’t know anything about its history or the plants that grow there, but I think knowing more about the garden makes it even more special. I’m glad we’ve been able to provide that resource to the community.”

Photos courtesy Peggy Propp.