CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While most people use tomatoes for food, Barbara Liedl is using them to teach students about teamwork, patience and the importance of hands-on learning.
Liedl, an associate professor and research scientist at West Virginia State University, is the only public tomato breeder in the country that specializes in the protected culture method, and she's been using her unique niche to get students involved at State for nearly a decade.
Students study things such as genetics and plant reproduction in a laboratory, but the most important part is the dirty work at Liedl's greenhouse, she said.
"Getting hands-on is critical. For me, it's the only way. I believe very strongly that if I bring a student in to work on a project, if they don't know how to actually grow a plant, what's the point?" she said. "You can do all the fancy molecular stuff, but if you don't understand how it grows, it's really hard to get that connection."
"The students get really excited once they invest in a project. It becomes theirs, and they get very passionate," she said. "Ultimately, we have to work together as a team -- sometimes the work is hard and hot and sweaty and you have to make sure everyone's going to pull together."
When Liedl recently attended a conference in Florida to share her students' work -- one student's project took first place, while the other tied for second.
Liedl received strange looks when she shared that neither was a science major. One was an education major, and the other an English major.
"I had a lot of people at that conference who said, 'I'm really sorry you don't have any science students.' But I said, 'Why?' Two years ago this student hated science, now he sees how he can bring science into his future classroom. I've made more of an impact by converting him than I would have having five science students because through him I'm going to be able to impact students for the rest of his career," she said.