Department of Plant Pathology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA 14853

Background and objectives

Expressions of public concern about pesticide contamination of natural ecosystems and potential hazards from genetically engineered plants continue to dominate discussions about contemporary food and fiber production industries [1]. Plant pathologists and other agricultural scientists who have generally not had to explain or defend their actions to lay audiences in the past now find themselves struggling to do so without using complex terminology and without benefit of a curriculum to provide their audiences with a conceptual framework for discussion [2]. In an effort to build and strengthen that conceptual framework for lay audiences in microbiology and, in particular in plant pathology, faculty and staff at Cornell University have developed two introductory curricula for two diverse audiences.

Materials and methods

For elementary school students, ages 8- 10 years, a curriculum titled “Microbes on the Move,” comprised of four one hour sessions presented at weekly intervals has been. In the first session, students use microscopes to view minute animals and microbes in leaf litter, pond water, soil, and air. They also isolate from each of those “substrates,’’ the results of which are viewed the following week. In the second week, they engage in exercises to measure of microbes and other small things and they inoculate plants with bacterial, viral and fungal pathogens. In the third week, they view and discuss results from the previous week and they begin to consider defenses of their own bodies to ward off invasion by microbes. In the fourth week, they complete a discussion of defense and test themselves with a game adapted from the popular television show, “ Jeopardy.”

For college students, a two credit course titled “Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds” has become a popular offering for students with diverse backgrounds and interests. With effective use of selected audio/visual aids, a user-friendly text, and a non-technical approach to lecturing, students who had never before cared about the microbial world discover something new about the world around them. Topics covered include general biology and classification, plant and animal diseases, mycotoxins, medicinal molds and fleshy fungi, edible and poisonous mushrooms, mind-altering drugs, wood decay, lichens, and mycorrhizae.

Results and conclusions

The elementary school curriculum has been tested in three schools, and a manual has been developed to provide teachers with the background needed to carry out most of the “Microbes on the Move” curriculum by themselves with supplies provided by Cornell for a modest fee.

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds has been offered for eight years and has been taken by over 2000 students. Annual enrollments now average about 300. For few if any students is the course a springboard for careers in microbiology , mycology , or plant pathology. But many who complete the course go on to become teachers, school board members, local politicians, or in other positions requiring them to participate in decisions about environmental stewardship. Lessons learned in this course help them to execute their duties with a stronger conceptual base.


1. Zitter, TA, 1984. Plant Disease 68, 655.
2. Davis BG, 1993. Tools for Teaching, pp.55-59.