NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Endowed chair helps NMSU professor expand opportunities for students

Thanks to an endowed chair, Professor Theodore Sammis is taking a back-to-basics approach - simple, hoop-shaped greenhouses - to help agriculture students at New Mexico State University.

Dr. Theodore Sammis, professor of hydrology in New Mexico State University's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, checks a data logger in a hoop house students built last fall. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Sammis, a professor of hydrology in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, was awarded the Jose Fernandez Memorial Chair last year. The chair was set up in 1992 by the Enrique Chavez family in recognition of Fernandez's contributions to NMSU and the agricultural community.

In collaboration with John Mexal, assistant department head for Plant and Environmental Sciences, Sammis is using three low-cost, low-tech hoop houses to create opportunities for hands-on learning outside the classroom. The NMSU students' learning started from the very beginning of the project - they helped build the 12-by-15-foot structures, which provide greenhouse-type conditions at a fraction of the cost of a traditional greenhouse. While a standard greenhouse might cost $10,000 or more, hoop houses can be built for about $200.

"The students were quite enthusiastic about the process," Sammis said. The hoop houses were constructed last fall at the Leyendecker Plant Science Center, near NMSU's main campus in Las Cruces. Although built of simple materials - mostly PVC pipe and a UV-resistant clear plastic "skin" - the hoop houses create an environment that nurtures plants as well as student learning.

With the help of a work-study student, whose wages also were funded by the chair, students in an introductory Horticulture 100 class built the hoop houses and planted lettuce and radishes in October. Low-cost data loggers were installed in each hoop house and outside the structures to measure temperature, humidity and soil moisture.

Irrigation is provided by an automated timer connected to soaker hoses, a system that will provide more hands-on teaching opportunities for an advanced irrigation class Sammis teaches. Other learning will come in data analysis, pest management, construction techniques, fertilizer selection and application, and the extended growing season made possible by the protection of the hoop houses.

"There's nothing like the real world to give students the training to integrate it all together," Sammis said. "They can learn almost as much from the low-tech as they can from the high-tech."

Even the construction process was a valuable learning experience.

"This is a new experience for the students," Sammis said. "They were enthusiastic, but some of them had never used a hand saw. Some of the students had never had the opportunity to build anything."

Sammis plans to involve students from as many classes as possible in the hoop house project, including graduate students in an instrumentation class he teaches.

With support from the chair, he's also working on a project to take farming information gathered from farm fields and make it available on NMSU's Web site for farmers and researchers. The data will include irrigation and fertilizer amounts and frequencies as well as pesticide applications.

Sammis also plans to bring in a speaker - for students and the general public - to talk about the importance of volunteers for organizations that are working with the agricultural and environmental communities.

Sammis will hold the chair for three years; then it will rotate to another faculty member.