Aiming for excellence in adult education: successful certificate programs at the New York Botanical Garden

Kim Asimake

The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York, NY 10458, USA

The Garden

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx was founded in 1891 and has a area of 250 acres. It is a garden with dramatic rock outcroppings, wetlands, a cascading waterfall, and a 40-acre tract of uncut forest that once covered New York City. For over 60 years, the New York Botanical Garden has been educating students. Early on, the Garden offered guided tours and graduate training. It was however, not until 1930 when the Garden formally established adult education, offering botany and horticulture courses. The first Certificate course was offered in 1932.

Over time, the offerings have changed and grown. Today, the Continuing Education Department offers programs in eight disciplines. These areas are Botany, Botanical Art and Illustration, Botanical Crafts, Floral Design, Gardening, Commercial Horticulture, Landscape Design, and Horticultural Therapy. To give you an idea of the magnitude of our programming efforts, we offered over 538 courses in fiscal year 1996.

Our programs can be divided into three categories: Non-certificate, Certificate, and Special programs. Of the eight disciplines we offer, seven are Certificate Programs. Completion of a Certificate program signifies that a student has successfully fulfilled all of the requirements of a prescribed series of courses. For instance, to receive a NYBG Certificate in Gardening, a student must complete 150 hours of classroom study, taking required courses, as well as a selection of electives. Within a Certificate program, both Non-certificate and Certificate-level courses are offered. Non-certificate courses are introductory type courses geared to the enthusiast. They are good beginner courses and have no prerequisites. Certificate classes can be introductory, intermediate, or advanced level programs geared to an individual earning a NYBG Certificate. They contain subject-matter that would be relevant to entering the job market upon completion. However you do not have to be enrolled in a Certificate program to take a Certificate course.

The staff

NYBG Continuing Education is headed by the Director, who reports directly to the Executive Vice-president at the Garden. I am the Program Manager, responsible for all course programming, including symposia, special lectures, advanced workshops, etc. We produce a catalog twice each year. As Program Manager, I oversee the Program Coordinators and deal directly with instructors. The Marketing Manager analyzes data to understand our audience and how to best meet the needs of our audience through market research and examination of registration data.

The Communication Coordinator works with the Marketing Manager and me to develop the promotional materials from inception to graphics for the prospective student. The Registrar oversees 4 full-time staff members and 2 part-time weekend staff; our classes run on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and also at weekends.

Each discipline is headed by a Program Coordinator who is an industry professional. Many of our coordinators own their own businesses, so that they have a pulse on industry needs and the expectations of employers. For instance, the Program Coordinator of Floral Design is the owner of his own floral shop, is a guest instructor of San Francisco College and is an instructor at MUSA Flower School in Yokohama, Japan. Our Landscape Design Coordinator is the principal of her own firm, and a former student. Coordinators are responsible for recommending new classes and instructors, and advising students in their specialist areas. The Coordinators are the key to our class programming, as they make the best use of networking within their own professional areas.

For the 1996 fall and winter season alone, our department is dealing with 132 different instructors. Like our Coordinators, many of our instructors own their own businesses and are well respected in their fields. Many of our instructors are NYBG horticultural and botanical science experts and we make it our priority to use our staff and resources whenever we can. Our instructors effectively combine book knowledge with practical work experience, and a love for their chosen industry that is directly translated to our students. By having instructors who are in the industry, students respect their accomplishments and their genuine willingness to share information and teach from experience. It is not uncommon to see comments on evaluation forms about instructors being so generous with their 'trade secrets'.

It is the high caliber of instruction and programming that attracts students to our courses. Our certificates truely have meaning and industry acceptance. Recently I enrolled in a night course here at the Garden, and about 30% of the students had enrolled after recommendations by friends who had previously taken courses here at NYBG.

To maintain and improve that standard, we now provide all instructors, prior to the start of classes, guidelines for instruction, as well as sample course syllabuses and a worksheet, so that they can all plan in a uniform fashion. We require that all instructors submit a current resume and course outline (or syllabus) prior to the start of classes. By having these materials on file we insure continuity within a program and within a course, and we are able to observe the evolution and improvement of a course over time. It also results in a more efficient operation of the planning process.

A quality product

Within our Certificate programs we offer 30 courses for college credit recommendation through the National Program on Non-Collegiate Sponsored Instruction (NPONSI). Every five years, select courses are reviewed by a panel of colleagues from universities with the same discipline so they can be approved for college credit. Accreditation is based on an evaluation of course syllabuses, instructor qualifications, homework assignments, textbooks, exams, and student evaluations. An advantage is that students can transfer these credits. If a student does not enroll for college credit, the student still knows that the caliber of the course is highly regarded. Although this is a costly and time-consuming process involving lots of paperwork, we feel it is a useful option for our students.

NYBG also has joint programs with Bronx Community College and Lehman College. Students enroll at these colleges and use the Garden as a campus for their specialized classes. Ultimately, these students will graduate with a two or four-year degree. Another school associated with NYBG is the NYBG School of Professional Horticulture. This runs a two-year full-time program in which students take all of their academic classes through the Education Department along with work rotations on the NYBG grounds.

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