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Horticulture’s Sherk Shows Resilience, Adaptability

Julieta Sherk on one of her plant identification walks.

Julieta Sherk, a landscape architect and professor in the Department of Horticultural Science, is used to making situations and spaces more functional and beautiful.  

“It’s kind of my nature to turn things that are hard, shocking or an obstacle into assets or opportunities. It’s who I am,” Sherk says. 

When she first started teaching at NC State University 12 years ago, she was assigned a classroom in the basement of Kilgore Hall.  

“It was dingy and dirty with green walls, and the desks were dirty and stained… and a nasty old sofa,” Sherk said. It wasn’t a warm and inviting place to have students learn. With the help of her family, and a little elbow grease, Sherk turned the basement of Kilgore Hall into a sparkling functioning learning space, with computers and clean drafting tables.

“The desks have new surfaces, I have a new ceiling, the floor has been re-polished and looks beautiful. I have a printer and a scanner, and every year I try to improve the space to bring it to the 21st century,” Sherk said. As she works to improve her studio, Sherk says she’s also evolved as an educator.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced campus to close, Sherk found herself transitioning from in-person to online teaching, something she had never done before.

Her classes met synchronously through Zoom but she also recorded her lectures for students who missed class.

“I have a beautiful document camera in my studio on campus, but not at home. So, my son set up one of his really nice cameras and I was able to continue my hand drawing demonstrations and was able to finish the spring semester almost seamlessly, really,” Sherk said.

Next, she needed to redesign her summer landscape architecture courses to be asynchronous and online.

“I reached out to a colleague in my department, Lis Meyer. She is just a superstar horticulturalist. Many years ago she developed an online plant identification course with the world-renowned Longwood Gardens. It was really reassuring to see how these two entities, NC State and Longwood Gardens, put together a package for a really outstanding online course in plant identification,” Sherk said.

And though creating something similar for her online landscape architecture classes was daunting and took additional work and time on her part, Sherk knew it would be better for the students.

“There was a little voice in me saying, ‘You can do this and you can do this well.’ I looked at Lis’ website and noticed that she had a welcome where all the students interacted at the beginning with each other and with her. And then I noticed that she had videos for all her plants that she created.”

Sherk thought she could do the same thing with her plant ID walks. She enlisted the help of her son as her videographer and her nephew as her editor.

“My son taped me doing the walks that I would have done with my students in person, two on main campus, three at JC Raulston, one at Centennial, one at Coker Arboretum at UNC and one in Cameron Park.”

She also found a way to help her students feel engaged through the use of forums in Moodle.

“Everybody had to introduce themselves, and they did a beautiful job. They posted pictures of themselves with a little narrative. Then I had each one of them respond to at least two people’s introductions and I would also respond to everybody.”

She also learned to use the video recording tool LOOM for her lectures.

“Loom has a little teeny, tiny window at the bottom and you can make it as big or as little as you want. It shows you in real time while your slides are the focus. This helps since I talk with my hands and facial expressions.” Sherk said this allowed  students to see and interact with her.

In addition to trying new tools to make her courses as interactive as possible, Sherk, her son and nephew received guidance from NC State DELTA on how best to design and structure her online courses. For example, they encouraged her to put less value on quizzes, where there is a greater potential of cheating, and adding a time limit on each question on tests or exams. She added more value to projects such as a plant identification spreadsheet and plant scavenger hunts students did on their own.

Sherk said it was a team effort, and she appreciated all of the support from her adaptable students, first-rate teaching assistant, Chris Bradley, colleagues and family. She plans to apply for a DELTA grant to explore other innovative approaches that are sustainable, equitable and engaging, so that she can teach landscape design/architecture and her other courses online, face to face and as hybrid classes.