Using the Plantwise training modules and approach to strengthen the curriculum at UCATSE

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UCATSE (Universidad Católica Agropecuario del Trópico Seco) is a private university with state funding that began operating a plant clinic under the Global Plant Clinic (GPC) initiative in 2005. With the start of the Plantwise programme in Nicaragua in 2012, UCATSE incorporated student participation into the plant clinic by adopting the plant clinic approach and Plantwise training modules as a teaching tool within the curriculum of the Agricultural Engineering degree programme. Since the Plantwise training was integrated into the curriculum, about 240 students have been trained in field diagnostics (as of mid-2016), many of whom later go on to work for private companies, extension, or as farmers.

Incorporating clinics into the curriculum

UCATSE has integrated the Plantwise training modules and plant clinic approach into its curriculum for students studying Agriculture Engineering. Students study general entomology and plant pathology during their first two years of study. In their third year, students are prepared for their field work and research in the course Rural Development, which incorporates the Plantwise training modules 1 and 2 (“Field Diagnosis and Plant Clinic Operation” and “Giving Good Advice”) and focus on basic plant diagnostics, improving the quality of recommendations, and how to operate a plant clinic. Students then apply what they have learned through practical field work in local communities. Students in their fourth and fifth year of studies support the new third-year students learning the Plantwise approach, and give an introduction to freshman students during their orientation.

The practical portion of the Rural Development course in which the plant clinic is mobilized and brought to the communities, takes place over four months, from August to November, the time of greatest agricultural activity in the region. The students go out into local communities one time per week between 6:30 and 12:00. About 40 students are dispersed to approximately 43 farmer fields to monitor the crop cycle, with students assigned to work with one farmer for the semester. During the practical field work, the students are accompanied by their professor, Harlin Garcia, who assists with diagnoses and recommendations and also have the support of the UCATSE diagnostic laboratory. Students record all of the information in the Plantwise prescription form during the visit and Harlin checks their work to ensure the quality of diagnosis and recommendations. Detected errors are then used to identify issues or topics that need to be reinforced in the classroom. In addition to the field based plant clinic practicum, the students are involved in plant health rallies. Harlin said his students conducted 4 plant health rallies in 2015, and that the students are “captivated” with the method.

Sister Sandra noted that “many of our students are farmers or come from families of farmers, and the plant clinic methodology is very important in their work. It impacts their learning and has a multiplier effect at the level of their communities, as they put into practice their new skills with neighbouring farmers”. Harlin said that students are motivated and inspired by the Plantwise training modules and approach. When students finish their studies they continue to contact him for diagnostic support in their consultations with farmers, while other alumni have tried to integrate the plant clinic approach into their professional life, practicing it within their employing organizations.

For Sister Sandra, the Plantwise modules and plant clinic practicum are “permanently integrated” into their curriculum, noting it has a “logical place” and emphasizing the importance of plant diagnostics to the education of the students. “How can you sow if you don’t know about the pests and diseases of the crop?” opined Sister Sandra, “the plant clinic has to continue to be integrated in the training of the students, it has been established as a necessity within their general education”.

“Aligned with our mission”

Sister Sandra Lopez, Director of the College-Administration, said integrating the Plantwise training modules and plant clinic practicum into the curriculum has contributed to the Universities overall mission and objectives. The mission of the University is holistic development, using a social and environmental approach to solve problems in the region. The University integrates the plant clinic approach into its community development mission in order to provide better service to farmers. The UCATSE plant clinic practicum contributes to the local agricultural community through plant diagnostics, holding plant health rallies (based on pests detected in the field), and field trainings on topics such as pest and diseases in coffee, soil management, etc. “The plant clinic has given us the opportunity to provide timely advice to solve the problems of farmers in the region,” said Sister Sandra “the clinic supports the practical training of the students while improving the reach of the University in the country”.

Sister Sandra said the University feels “proud” of the tangible results that have come from the plant clinic practicum in the surrounding communities. Harlin Garcia, professor of Rural Development and plant clinic supervisor for the northern region (Las Segovias), recalled a case in the community of Piedras Largas where angular leaf spot was severely affecting the bean crop. The University, through its plant clinic practicum, identified the problem and provided management recommendations to farmers to control the disease. He believes the plant clinic practicum has helped them gain the confidence of the farmers who follow their recommendations, demonstrating that there is an adoption of the approach at the local level that will cause positive change in the way the farmers seek solutions to problems.

Recently, the National Council of Universities wanted to know what the social impact of the University is and see how it integrates research into national needs. The study found that there is much correlation between the research conducted by the University and the needs of the farmers in the region, and this is partly due to the connection the University has made with farmers through the plant clinic practicum.

Impacting local communities

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Farmer Alexis Peralta enjoys working with the UCATSE students

Farmer Alexis Peralta, of the village La Libertad, sits in a chair on his porch enjoying the panoramic view 1,300 metres up in mountains surrounding Estelí. He is a maize, bean and sorghum farmer, who has been working with the UCATSE students on and off for 15 years. For the past 6 years, every Tuesday a group of about 20-30 students come out to La Libertad to meet with a group of 80 farmers. “We have learned a lot” from the students said Don Alexis, “on how to recognize and better control problems with our crops”.

Don Alexis recalled a time when about 50% of the bean fields in La Libertad were infected with a disease that was causing the plants to die. The farmers were unsure what to do to control the disease, the products they were applying were ineffective and they were losing their crop. The UCATSE students came out and determined it was a fungus (angular leaf spot) and suggested the farmers use Azoxystrobin, Carbendazim and Chlorothalonil applied in rotation to control the fungus. The students also worked with the farmers to help them to improve their seed selection to ensure they are using healthy seeds to prevent the disease. Don Alexis said as a result of the recommendation, the bean yields increased from an average of 19 quintales per manzana to 37 quintales per manzana.

Don Alexis said he and the other farmers in La Libertad really enjoy communicating and working with the UCATSE students. He said when it is Tuesday, the farmers know the students will be visiting and “we feel happy”. He said it is a beneficial relationship for all, “we learn from them, and they learn from us”. He concluded “the work of the University plant clinic has been very beneficial for the 80 producers in the community”.

Contributed by Erica Chernoh and Eduardo Hidalgo

Plantwise in Nicaragua is coordinated by the Academic Plant Health Network (REDAF – Red Académica de Fitoprotección) through the University of León (Universidad Nacional Autónoma UNAN-León).

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