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Learning to garden — online?

May 1, 2020

ASU gardening Instructor Deborah Thirkhill has found unique advantages to conducting her physical activity class virtually

The joys of gardening: head in the sun, hands in the dirt, something living where nothing lived before, and finally the crunch and snap and taste of what you and nature have created together. Indeed one of life’s pleasures, and one worth learning and teaching.

But how do you teach it online? It’s not exactly calculus or ancient Roman history.

One Arizona State University instructor has cracked that problem, and it’s not only successful — it’s turning out to have some advantages no one expected.

Deborah Thirkhill, a program coordinator for the Ground Services Arboretum, teaches PPE 240: Gardening, a Physical Activity Course offered by the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. It's usually two classes per semester with 20 students each at the Tempe campus student garden on the south side of the Social Sciences Building.

Here’s how it normally works:

The class splits into groups of four. Each group has its own 8-foot-by-4-foot plot. They can grow anything they want, but usually they grow radishes because radishes mature in 27 days, Thirkhill said.

“I teach them how to garden in the desert,” she said.

They prepare the soil, learn about additives and compost, plant their seeds, put together a simple irrigation system and learn how to water and weed. Thirkhill teaches them about the two desert growing seasons: cool and hot. There’s some botany in there too.

“We can just about garden year-round, even in the hot summer, and get certain types of heat-loving plants to grow,” she said. “They have to grow something and harvest it by the end of class,” she said. “They can pull up a ripe radish ready to go and they have to eat it. Sometimes we chop it up and make a little salad or whatever. Everybody can taste their radishes.” 

Now the class is a different experience.

“We’re learning basically the same things, but they have the little Jiffypot gardens with 12 little plugs,” she said.

First, the students come to the Tempe campus to see what it looks like. “I even offered them to harvest a potato or whatever they found in there.” Then they pick up a gardening kit with seeds and a Jiffy planter.

“Online I’ve been showing them how to start the seeds,” Thirkhill said. “Some of them have never touched soil before. They don’t even know how to plant seeds, so I show them how to plant seeds. The tiny seeds you just barely work into the top of the soil; you just press them in. The bigger seeds, like okra, you push down to your first knuckle.”

Thirkhill started with Zoom, but there was so much she wanted to show them she couldn’t work it in. Now she films and posts videos on Vimeo. Then she takes questions.

“They like to contact me live,” she said. “They call me, they text me, they email me with their questions and photographs. Some of them like to talk a lot, I think to maintain contact with somebody. I answer them immediately. I think that’s really important. I’ve been having a blast.”

Thirkhill doesn’t keep office hours. She answers questions immediately, no matter what time of day they come in. She has responded to gardening questions at 10 p.m.

Out of her 20-student classes, as many as 12 to 15 are usually from China. They’re from urban places.

“They’ve never picked up a seed before,” she said. “They’re really divorced from nature. They’ve been the ones who are the most interested.”

Going online has had some unexpected benefits. Before, when she was teaching in person, if students didn’t recognize something or understand something, it passed over their heads. Now they have time to pause and look up an image or a term on the Internet.

“I think the communication is better,” she said. “Now I’m finding out what they’re not understanding. It’s clearer to me what’s falling through the gaps of what I’m trying to communicate to them about gardening.”

Many of her students are studying engineering or technical business subjects like supply chain management. They’re crunching numbers and studying differential equations in their other classes.

In her class, “they come and they can just kick back, relax, get their hands in the dirt, putter around in a garden, and do a little weeding,” she said. “They said mentally it’s so relaxing to take this class. That’s what I wanted it to be all about — make gardening fun and relaxing.”

The only thing missing is gardening’s conviviality. “You strike up friendships when you garden, anywhere you do it,” she said. “They become your social group. That’s the only thing that’s lacking.”

Never in Thirkhill’s wildest dreams did she imagine taking the class online would work out this well.

“They’re in full control of these little organisms and if they make mistakes, that’s OK,” she said. “They can plant more seeds. Don’t worry about it. I think that’s the main thing right there.”

Janet Barrone-Curry is the Physical Activity Course program coordinator for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She said she thought they could adapt their whole curriculum to an online format.

"I never doubted that we could pull off in such a short amount of time what seemed to be an insurmountable task; adapting 64 physical activity courses to an online format,” she said. “I put my faith in our MLFTC faculty associates and in our students and did not look back. Now our students are receiving knowledge based instruction, real-time Zoom feedback and critiques from masters in their fields. Our mantra? 'We got this!'"

Top photo: Instructor Deborah Thirkhill tends the garden on the south side of the Social Sciences building on April 21, 2020. Students in her gardening class would generally be managing their plots there, but as with all other university classes, it is now online. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU's Decision Theater tools help navigate pandemic's uncertainty

May 1, 2020

Forecasting and tracking new cases of COVID-19, ensuring supplies and resources are positioned where and when they are most needed, and determining effective economic recovery plans is no easy feat — doing these things well requires vast amounts of data from a variety of sources.

In fact, solving the myriad challenges caused by the COVID-19 crisis requires not only the data itself, but also the ability to integrate and visualize it, as well as minds from a host of fields to interpret its meaning. Director Jon Miller presents in the Drum at Decision Theater Director Jon Miller presents inside the Drum at Decision Theater on Tempe campus. Credit: Tim Trumble for Arizona State University Download Full Image

Though it’s not every day that we face a pandemic, it is every day that Arizona State University’s Decision Theater uses exactly that set of capabilities to tackle an array of complex problems facing societies and organizations throughout the world.

The right tools for the job

The capabilities that Decision Theater developed through past collaboration with the U.S. Army for humanitarian relief have applications for the current crisis, according to Director Jon Miller. In that project, supply chains, demand and transportation models, and operational environments were brought together to provide a common working picture for all leaders to share.

The implications of changes in things like flooding conditions; supply availability, consumption and resupply rates; airfield, rail and port supply capabilities and capacities; conditions at shelters and hospitals and more were all instantly captured, integrated, visualized and reported in real time — a capability that can save lives in critical decision moments.

Miller also sees great potential in Decision Theater’s ability to integrate real-time information coming from any one of a number of third-party data sources, such as social media, websites or externally maintained databases.

Gathering this data, tracking changes and conducting predictive analytics can help critical facilities around the state stay one step ahead of COVID-19. For instance, this information would allow for strategic positioning of personnel and resources before an influx of patients, helping ensure that systems are not overloaded at critical times.

“Imagine the value of a common operating picture that provides situational awareness of the status of facilities, such as the location of equipment and staffing levels, and that being integrated with models that tell you where and when the demand for these things might occur,” Miller said. “Decision Theater can do all these things.”

Adapting to the times

The physical hub of Decision Theater activities is located on the Tempe campus, which hosts a circular room known as the Drum where leaders gather to see data and models on seven surrounding screens. But don’t let that image limit your vision of Decision Theater, Miller said. The advanced technologies that allow researchers in Arizona to collaborate with policymakers in Washington, D.C., adapt well to serving distributed decision-makers in the era of social distancing.

“We are operating in a virtual environment now almost as effectively as we would by convening in the immersive, visualized environment of the Drum,” Miller said. “We’re still able to convene, show our work product and have meaningful dialogue. We have really not skipped a beat.”

This is critical, since bringing people together — experts from different fields, policymakers and those with differing perspectives and values — and facilitating informed conversations between them is a central part of Decision Theater’s purpose.

Decision Theater also offers technical abilities such as software development, data analytics, predictive analytics and data visualization, all of which allow visitors to see complex problems in new ways. According to Miller, integration is the key.

Now, several groups around ASU and the local community are exploring how they might be able to put Decision Theater to use to solve COVID-19-related challenges in Arizona.

Supply chain explained

Decision Theater recently collaborated with Northern Arizona University to launch a public-facing web application that helps demystify the U.S. supply chain from the comfort of your home laptop.

Their tool, called FEW-View, allows users to visualize what areas of the country their communities rely on for food, energy, water or other in-demand commodities (think toilet paper).

“We designed a system that gives a layman's view of these complex supply chains while providing a better understanding of how dependent or resilient your community is,” said Rahul Salla, technical director of Decision Theater.

The tool can also be used at a higher level to inform emergency management decisions, though its creators encourage seeking their expert assistance for that kind of detailed analysis.

“Predictive tools can help decision-makers assess where to position or direct sources while allowing them to respond with scientifically informed decisions,” he said.

For the future, Salla envisions integrating even more refined data beyond the county level to individual zip code data. This would allow decision makers to be even more precise in planning and directing supplies. The tool offers broad value beyond the current pandemic, showing how events in isolated areas, metropolitan areas or individual states can affect other communities that rely on them for various resources.

Helping small businesses survive COVID-19

Rajesh Buch, the practice lead for sustainability at ASU International Development, is exploring how Decision Theater can help businesses understand how the economy and different industries might evolve in our post-COVID-19 future.

Currently, ASU is a participant in a weekly meeting of organizations that engage small businesses in the Valley, called the Small Business Providers Collective. Members include the Small Business Administration, City Economic Development Department, Better Business Bureau, Arizona Commerce Authority and many others. Buch’s group is looking at how they might work with these organizations to gather data on ways local businesses are being affected by the pandemic.

“Our role right now could be a knowledge leader, collating all that information and making it accessible to all small business members around the state,” Buch said. “In the longer term, Decision Theater can start looking at the data, analyzing it and modeling it.”

Buch is also talking with Decision Theater about analyzing and modeling economic and workforce impacts. For example, they could study spending before the pandemic to understand how to help society return to those spending patterns. An analysis of the workforce could shed light on how employees — such as those working for struggling small businesses— can shift their skill sets to become more resilient.

Planning for a post-pandemic world

Beyond addressing the present crisis, Decision Theater is also looking toward the future in its problem-solving efforts.

“Eventually we’re going to get through this pandemic, and when we do, it’s going to be important to capture the lessons learned so that we can more rapidly apply science and information-technology-enabled capabilities to the next emergency,” Miller said. “As we are being reminded in the current COVID-19 environment, systems like what we are describing must be in place in advance of the crisis.”

To that end, Decision Theater is working with subject matter experts from a variety of sciences, including epidemiologists, economists and complexity scientists, among others. Throughout the pandemic, they have been collecting global social media data that will allow a variety of comparisons between national responses. Using these information sources and more, Decision Theater will be able to work with Arizona leaders to prepare decision tools that more quickly harness the combined power of artificial intelligence, science and subject matter expertise.

The ultimate goal is the same for this project and all the work at Decision Theater — help leaders make sense of vast amounts of data, explore possible solutions to our most complex challenges, and make informed decisions for the future.

If you are interested in working with Decision Theater, contact Miller at

Decision Theater is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

FEW-View was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist, ASU Knowledge Enterprise