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EIU 360

Planting the Seeds of Knowledge

Barbara Carlsward's enthusiasm for botany - and teaching it to her students - is unquestionable.

“I look forward to getting up every morning and coming in to school. Interacting with students is what makes me happy.”

It’s easy to tell Barbara Carlsward makes this statement with absolute sincerity. One look at her face as she says the words backs up the certainty in her voice. Eastern Illinois University prides itself in attracting faculty members with a dedication to their students and their field of study, and Dr. Carlsward is the embodiment of this point of pride.

“When I go into class, even if I’m in a bad mood, I come out of the class in a better mood,” Carlsward continued. “Every single time.”

Carlsward, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, arrived at Eastern in 2007 after completing her undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies at the University of Florida. She said her colleagues in the biology department initially attracted her to EIU, but the students quickly won her over as well.

“Once I got here, I realized the students were awesome,” said Carlsward, whose primary research focus is on the anatomy and evolution of orchids. “No matter what their intellectual capabilities are, the students are fun. If you engage the students, they seem to have a good time whether they’re interested in plants or not.”

Fostering an interest in plants is something Carlsward has done effectively, though. It makes sense, since she herself was a botany convert. Her bachelor’s degree from UF is in physics, but she came to realize it just wasn’t her thing. She wanted to get outdoors and spend some time in nature.

So Carlsward gave zoology a chance. It didn’t take long before she put the animal biology aside as well and focused on plants instead. The rest was history.

“I started taking botany, and I was a sponge for everything anybody told me about plants,” said Carlsward. “I tell my students sometimes I forget I’m not a plant; I’m more familiar with the life cycles of plants than I sometimes am of my own.

“There’s something about plants that’s just really, really cool. When you walk outside, that’s the first thing you see.”

Now Carlsward is able to help her students develop their own enthusiasm for a subject they may not have realized they could find interesting.

“Most students come into botany thinking ‘Oh no. I have to study plants? Eww. I don’t like plants.’

“But they come out of that class – and I get a lot of comments like this on my evaluations – having a real appreciation for plants. They at least like them more than when they came into the class, and they know a lot more about them.”

There’s good reason for that positive feedback; Carlsward makes it interesting for her students.

“I really like taking students outside – out of the classroom – and just exposing them to whatever they want to look at,” said Carlsward. “I’m always surprised as how much they actually find, how much they see, and how interested they are in just about everything.

“Above everything else – above memorizing facts about biology and understanding evolutionary processes – I really just want them to appreciate the world around them.”

And many of them do. For Carlsward, that’s the payoff.

“I get a lot of students who comment ‘I don’t see the outdoors the same anymore. I don’t look at plants the same anymore. I don’t look at fungi the same anymore. I see so much more now that I’ve taken your course.’

“That’s the single most rewarding thing: That I’ve opened their eyes to the world around them.”

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