Hands-on learning for the green industry

Photos Courtesy of Troy Mcquillen.
A student tackles the mowing on thesloping hillside with a ride-on, triplex mower. Hands-on classes give studentsexperience in a wide variety of lawnand landscape applications.

The horticulture department has been active and growing at Kirkwood Community College ( since 1968, just two years after the school was established in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It continues to blossom, with an $8 million investment in new, up-to-date facilities, including high-tech greenhouses, classrooms and shop and an extensive outdoor lab. An expanse of 32 acres to the west of the facility is slotted for future development, which will include a tall grass prairie, wetlands, a tree nursery, turfgrass test plots and research space for herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees.

“It’s all about equipping students for the real world situations they’ll encounter,” says Turf Instructor Troy McQuillen. “To accomplish that, we take a hands-on approach to all aspects of the horticulture programs. We call it ‘applied communication,’ and it involves all the senses—seeing, touching, feeling and smelling. So, our greenhouses, shop and outdoor lab are essential components of the learning experience.”

Kirkwood CC offers four horticulture programs. The first, golf course and athletic turfgrass management, involves hands-on development and maintenance of grounds, sports fields and golf courses. Classroom and lab work combine to cover design, installation and maintenance of turfgrass systems; best management practices using cultural and chemical controls; installation and maintenance of irrigation systems; and operation and maintenance of turf equipment.

All four of the programs include a focus on computer literacy, team building and leadership responsibilities, and written and oral communications.

The second program, landscape, nursery and garden center management, combines hands-on outdoor and greenhouse experience with classroom and lab work to cover identification, care and use of plants; landscape design and construction; insect, disease and weed identification and control using best management practices; and operation and maintenance of equipment.

The landscape maintenance program combines the turfgrass and plant components of the first two programs to cover landscape design and construction; turf and plant identification, use and care; irrigation system installation, maintenance and repair; pest identification and control following best management practices; and equipment operation and maintenance.

Students learn the art ofworking together as a team, as wellas correct procedures.
Students work with pull-typeand tractor-mounted attachments.

The parks and natural resources program focuses on preserving and maintaining natural resources. Hands-on indoor and outdoor lab work and classroom sessions combine to cover design, construction/installation and maintenance of campgrounds and lakes; identification and management of fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and nesting and game birds; maintenance of plant and turfgrass systems, erosion control; maintenance of park facilities; and equipment operation and maintenance.

All of these programs lead to an associate degree following a two-year, four-semester format, combined with a 192-hour paid internship during the summer between the two years.

Making it work

McQuillen says, “We currently have close to 240 students in our horticulture programs. Approximately 90 percent fit in the traditional category, carrying a full class load and planning to earn their degrees in the standard two-year time frame. The remaining 10 percent are nontraditional, generally older students who are either upgrading their skills or changing career paths, but that mix changes all the time, with job layoffs and people interested in retraining. Most of our students in both categories have part-time or full-time jobs, are parents or have other family commitments, and have other outside activities. Our programs must be flexible enough so they can be tailored to each student to make it work for them.”

The department accomplishes that flexibility with a combination of day and night classes and a staff of six full-time faculty members and eight adjunct instructors.

“We also offer the certificate option in each of the four programs,” says McQuillen. “The student works with their advisor on class selection and scheduling to tailor a one-year program that fits their needs and meets the class and credit hour requirements. Individuals also can sign up for a single class within any of the programs if they wish, but most of those already in the workforce will pick up classes in communication, leadership or computer literacy through our extensive continuing education programs.”

Students gain hands-onexperience in turf maintenance, such asthe core aerification project shown here. Students reworked themound and home plate areas of thebaseball field and the skinned areaof the softball field this past year.

Instructors strive to treat the classes like a work environment. Students must be on time, pay attention and be prepared to have random tasks that must be completed. McQuillen says, “Anyone who works in the green industry needs to understand they are going to get dirty at times, and they’re going to be working outside on days when conditions are far from pleasant.”

Sixty to 70 percent of his class time is spent outside. He says, “I mix inside and outside class time. We may spend 30 minutes indoors talking about the basics of mowing, then move outdoors to examine and operate both reel and rotary mowers. Even if the entire class is indoors, I’ll mix the formats, maybe lecturing for 30 minutes, then giving them 30 minutes of computer lab time to research the topic; then 30 minutes of group discussion or work on a project.


The on-the-job training through internships is a key element of each of the four programs. Some internships are set up through the job fair Kirkwood CC holds each year. Companies and facilities in the area are invited to participate. Other companies and facilities contact the college when they have internship openings. Close to 40 percent of the students line up their own internships through the networking resources they’re encouraged to develop.

The formal internships are the equivalent of six weeks and are completed by the second week of April. During that period, their supervisor fills out a biweekly evaluation and the intern keeps a daily work log. The faculty member overseeing that program will meet with both the student and the supervisor by week five to discuss the student’s progress. The supervisor is asked to assign the student’s grade at this point, though it could be adjusted early in week six. The final internship grade must be posted by the end of week six.

McQuillen says, “The biggest problem we hear from supervisors across all four programs is the students don’t ask questions. We find the students do need time to become accustomed to the environment and get used to the management style and operational details, but most students continue to work under their supervisor for the remainder of the summer, often developing a great working relationship, and earning a raise in the process.”

Part of the programincludes gaining experience inequipment operation during theperformance of standard maintenanceprocedures. Here studentshandle the offset setup for the JohnDeere TC125 collection system.
Students load topdressingmaterial and use the Dakota 410Turf Tender to apply it.

Advisory committees

For each program, horticulture faculty members work with an advisory committee, which involves people from all aspects of the industry and includes business owners, facility managers and vendor representatives. Traditionally, these meetings have been held once a year to review the programs, compare existing classes to the course objectives and to relevant industry advances, and make changes as identified. McQuillen says, “As we prepared to move into our new 21st century building, we felt it was essential to upgrade our programs, too. The past two years, we’ve met with our advisory committees two or three times each year to fine-tune each of the four programs to make sure we’re hitting student and market needs. We’re including feedback from current students and recent graduates, too.”

Some changes resulting from this process are minor; others add new classes or new areas of focus. For example, athletic field maintenance was added to the golf turfgrass management program as area schools and park systems recognized the need for professional management to protect their field resources and provide greater safety and playability for their athletes.

“Each of our programs has similar connections, providing avenues for those students who complete their associate degree here and move on to a four-year school for their bachelor’s degree. Our parks advisory committee has determined that students in that program will be more successful if they do pursue a four-year degree. Our other three advisory committees have confirmed that our graduates can get good jobs with their two-year degrees and be very successful. However, we do provide full support and encouragement for those who do wish to complete a four-year program in those areas.”

Students learn that the quality of the follow-up work after procedures such as verticutting makes a huge impact on the effectiveness of the procedure.

Students replace sod
around the mound.
Off-campus field trips give students the opportunity to see how other facilities are set up and managed. Here the class visits the baseball field of the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Class A affiliate of the Angels.

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.