Watching the grass grow

John Kaminski is an associate professor of Turfgrass Science in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, who has been using social media, posts, tweets, and blogs to help propel turfgrass analysis and instruction into the future. Prior to Kaminski's arrival at Penn State, he served as the first turfgrass pathologist at the University of Connecticut and created their Turf Diagnostic Center. Kaminsky has been helping Penn State's Turfgrass Science program produce top-notch golf course superintendents for courses around the world. This year, the program's graduates served at Augusta National, the Merion Golf Club, and Oak Hill (where the PGA Championship will take place in August).

Given the proximity of the Oak Hill PGA tournament next month, we thought this was an opportune moment to talk with Kaminski about his students, his interest in social media, his enthusiasm for agronomy and his propensity for bleeding blue and white.

Tell us a bit about you and your decision to come to Penn State?

I received my bachelors degree in turfgrass science and landscape contracting from Penn State in 1998. After earning my doctorate at the University of Maryland in 2004, I was hired by the University of Connecticut to start their Turfgrass Pathology program. Although I loved New England, the opportunity to come back to Penn State and be a part of arguably the best turfgrass program in the world was an opportunity too great to pass up. It doesn’t hurt that my wife and I met at Penn State; got married at the Nittany Lion Inn; and bleed blue and white.

Could you describe your research?

My area of research involves finding solutions to pest problems commonly found on golf course turf. My main goal in this field is to optimize cultural and chemical management strategies designed to reduce environmental impacts, while maintaining the high standard conditions required by golfers. Most of my research revolves around turfgrass diseases and select weeds commonly found on golf courses. By improving our understanding of the biology of the organisms, we can more finely tune our management options to suppress them.

And teaching?

I serve as the director of the Golf Course Turfgrass Management Program. This is a two-year certificate program where students are taught the art and science of managing a golf course. Over the course of the program, students learn the science of agronomy (soils, turf, pests, etc.) as well as the business and management skills necessary to run a multi-million dollar operation. I teach a variety of classes including Cultural Management Practices, Disease Management, Communications, Computers and a few others. These are combined with classes taught by other faculty in various disciplines. Another major component of the program is the advanced internship, where students spend six months on some of the best golf courses in the world. As part of this program, I visit each intern and conduct and on-site visit to ensure that they are getting the most out of (and putting the most into) the opportunity. The results have paid off as our students are in high demand following graduation. We have a job placement rate close to 100 percent. I can’t think of the last time a student didn’t get a position following graduation, so it probably is 100 percent.

How did you begin using social media in the classroom and beyond?

At UConn, I was actually anti-social media. I thought it was going to the biggest problem for students and I usually advised against using it. Things have come a long way since then. As an insomniac, I spent many sleepless nights diving feet first into the various social media sites out there to get a better understanding of how they work. Later, after arriving at Penn State, I went from anti-social media to probably one of the most active users in the turfgrass industry. It has completely opened up communication among turfgrass managers. I routinely use Twitter, Facebook and Google+ to speak with superintendents all over the world.

The classroom, however, is a little different. I haven’t really figured out a way to use the full scope of social media effectively in teaching, but it’s only a matter of time. The biggest use of it related to the Golf Course Turfgrass Management Program is simply to highlight and promote all of the excellent students coming through the program.

Could you tell us about the Turf Diseases blog and how it's benefiting experts in the field?

The Turf Disease website was an idea I had at UConn, but I saved the idea once I found out I was coming to Penn State. The original concept was that each day of the week a Turfgrass Pathologist from one of five universities across the country would give a brief update about what was happening in terms of diseases within their region. We started small, with professors from the University of California Riverside, the University of Wisconsin, Kansas State University, North Carolina State and of course Penn State. The updates were great and provided a real-time look into what turfgrass managers should be on the lookout for. The website has morphed quite a bit since it was started, as some contributors left academia and others have started their own blogs for their region, but we still continue to expand with new authors to keep the end users up to date. We integrate the website with Facebook, Twitter and now Google+ to provide information in a variety of formats.

What types of social media do you use and why?

Anytime a new social media site starts, I tend to sign up and lock in my name. I play with the site a little to see if it will be useful for me. My main sites now are Twitter, Facebook and Google+. They all serve different purposes and I use each a little differently. Twitter is my absolute favorite and I manage about 10 different accounts, from my personal account to my turfgrass account to Penn State Turf. I love the quick pace of information and the ability to have short, but meaningful conversations with people all over the world. Facebook is used for the same purposes, but I generally only post a few messages a week so as not to overwhelm people. The latest for me is the use of Google Hangouts for the Turf Disease website. This is like a Skype video chat, but we can broadcast it live through YouTube and have as many as 10 people in the video chat sharing their experiences. We have labeled these #turfchat and it’s been a big success so far for the industry.

Other than these, I use many other sites with the idea that they integrate all of the information back to the main site (e.g., Penn State Turfgrass or Turfdiseases.org). What I’ve found in my experiences is that not everyone uses every social media site or communication method. My goal as an educator, researcher and extension specialist is to reach as many people as possible. I find that by sharing Penn State information across a broad range of sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as through standard email, I am able to reach more people via the means that they most frequently use to communicate. By doing this, I can reach a larger audience and attract many more to the world of turfgrass management, that would have otherwise not have known about our program. I am frequently contacted by people who have found a photo that I posted on flickr or through a blog post. They are often intrigued by something I posted and will follow up to learn more about the profession. It’s a great marketing tool for us.

To learn more about Penn State's Turfgrass Science program, visit http://plantscience.psu.edu/research/centers/turf. For more IT stories at Penn State, go to Current at http://current.it.psu.edu

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Last Updated July 18, 2013