Instructional Highlights: Valentín Picasso Risso

Through Zoom, agronomy professor brings farmers from around the world to his students

In teaching students about crops and farming in other parts of the world, Valentín Picasso Risso often incorporates field trips closer to home — area greenhouses that grow tropical plants or Wisconsin farms operated by recent immigrants.

Those opportunities, of course, had to be temporarily halted due to the pandemic. In their place, Picasso Risso has been using technology to give his students an engaging global perspective.

Throughout the pandemic, he’s been bringing farmers from foreign countries into his classroom remotely through Zoom. The guest could be a cattle farmer in the Amazon region of Brazil. Another day, students might hear from a coffee grower in Honduras or a sorghum farmer in Malawi.

“It’s a little like taking a field trip, but virtually,” says Picasso Risso, an associate professor of agronomy.

Picasso Risso locates the farmers through relationships he’s built while conducting research over the years or through the contacts of his teaching assistants, some of whom are international students.

Typically, students first view a video of the farm. The farmer then speaks for a half-hour or so, with Picasso Risso providing translation if needed. Students can then ask the farmer questions.

“They seem to really like this interaction with farmers,” he says.

Picasso Risso had used this approach some in face-to-face teaching prior to the pandemic, but the forced move to remote learning has made it easier, he says. The technology needed to smoothly pull it off is more accessible, familiar and accepted worldwide, and the Zoom format allows students to be engaged in the discussion in a way they couldn’t in a large classroom. Their participation is literally at their fingertips.

“I’ve also been incorporating more researchers from around the world as guest speakers,” Picasso Risso says.

While nothing will beat going to a field and directly interacting with a farmer, Picasso Risso says he intends to keep bringing global experiences to students through online formats once in-person classes resume.

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at  instructionalcontinuity@provost.wisc.edu.