'Fungal Jungle' course continues to be hands-on learning despite virtual format

Kelly Jedrzejewski
October 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students in “PPEM 120: The Fungal Jungle” are meeting virtually for class, but that hasn’t stopped their professors from ensuring that popular hands-on activities — such as growing oyster mushrooms or enjoying a fungal feast — didn’t fall by the wayside.

“Our goal is to teach people about biology and science through the study of fungi,” said Gretchen Kuldau, associate professor of plant pathology. “One of the outcomes we’d like for our students is that they see fungi where they never did before — not just noticing mushrooms but recognizing the fungal contributions to getting their food onto their plates.”

Kuldau and Maria Jiménez Gasco, associate professor of plant pathology, have been co-teaching this course for 13 years. The course is offered in the fall semester, and Jiménez Gasco said she and Kuldau spent the summer working out ways to have a successful virtual class.

“We didn’t hesitate for a minute to teach it online,” Jiménez Gasco said. “The lectures were straightforward with Zoom, and we work to keep students engaged and asking questions. The challenge was creating activities students could do at home. We’ve kept almost all of the activities, just in different formats.”

In the past, the course has included activities such as observing, identifying and classifying fungi, discussing fungi in the news, growing oyster mushrooms on toilet paper rolls, and an end-of-semester fungal feast. During past semesters, the class went on field trips to Penn State’s Mushroom Research Center and the Student Farm to see plant pathogens in action and completed a walk around campus to look at fungi.

One of the first activities adapted for the online version of the course was a fungal scavenger hunt. Jiménez Gasco said, “Normally we would have brought mushrooms for students to look at. We weren’t sure how it would work to send them out on their own, but the response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Jiménez Gasco added that students were given the categories of specimens to look for, and if they were on campus, pointers about where they could go to find them. Then students submitted photos of the fungi they found. “The students were really engaged and motivated to learn more about the fungi as they went out to look for them,” she said.

A few hands-on activities could not be completed virtually but were still important for students to experience. As a compromise, Kuldau and Jiménez Gasco created kits that were sent to or picked up by their students. The kits contained materials for several activities, including growing oyster mushrooms and the fungal feast.

“Dr. Kuldau usually cooks all kinds of different things for the feast, but there’s only so much we could adapt.” Jiménez Gasco said. “We wanted the students to have a little bit of the experience, so in the kit we also included a bag of fungal snacks.” At different points during the semester, the students will enjoy the snacks together via Zoom.

Sophie Marsh, a freshman from Bethlehem, has only virtual classes on her schedule and says “The Fungal Jungle” is her favorite. “It’s a wonderful class,” she said. “It’s small, too, so it honestly feels like a family. We talk about mushrooms in our group chat, and we all love the professors.”

Fungal Jungle

Some of the hands-on activities for “The Fungal Jungle” could not be completed without supplies. Professors Gretchen Kuldau and Maria Jiménez Gasco created kits that were either picked up by students or mailed. The kits contained materials for several activities, including growing oyster mushrooms and a “fungal feast.” 

IMAGE: Sophie Marsh

Marsh, who is majoring in pharmacology and toxicology, was interested in taking a horticulture or plant pathology course. “I was excited when I saw ‘The Fungal Jungle.’ My family does a lot of mushroom hunting to collect chanterelles, which we then put on pizza. I’m looking forward to learning more about identifying mushrooms by the end of the semester.”

Eli Kelsey, of State College, was looking for a general education course to add to his last semester schedule. Kelsey, who is double majoring in community, environment, and development and Russian, decided to take the course based on friends’ recommendations.

“They all said it was a really fun course,” he said. “I knew the labs were a big portion of the course, and I was a worried that I’d have to set up a little workspace and try to do all these labs on my own, which might be stressful. It didn’t turn out to be that way at all.”

Kelsey said the scavenger hunt was his favorite activity so far. “It was a good excuse to go outside, and we all kind of personalized our searches because we were in different locations. I was surprised how many kinds of fungi I found within 100 yards of my house.”

Kuldau and Jiménez Gasco credit their students with inspiring them to keep the course updated and embracing this newest virtual evolution.

“We’ve had the experience of students contacting us after finishing the course to share a fungi-related news item or even just coming up to us in the grocery store and telling us how much they loved the class,” Jiménez Gasco said. “It really motivates you as a professor to put in the effort to give students the best experience.”

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Last Updated October 21, 2020