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May 1, 2009

Gail Nonnecke

University Professor Gail Nonnecke (center), pictured here with senior Amanda Snodgrass (right) and graduate student Lee Goldsmith (left), is an award-winning horticulture teacher who has taken her knowledge global. Photo by Bob Elbert.

A fruitful teaching career

by Barbara McBreen, Agriculture and Life Sciences Communications

Growing fruit isn't easy. And that's something Gail Nonnecke would like consumers and her students to understand.

"The average consumer doesn't understand how hard fruit growers work to get that perfect fruit to the grocery store and how reasonably priced it is," said Nonnecke, University Professor of horticulture.

Growers do extensive planning, and deal with pests and weather risks to produce fruit that's marketable.

It's a lesson she instills in her students.

In her upper level horticulture class, Nonnecke requires students to create a plan for a start-up vineyard, apple orchard or strawberry and raspberry farm.

"It made us realize how difficult it is to set up a fruit production facility, the resources you need and how long it takes before you see a profit," said Lisa Wasko, a graduate student in horticulture.

"I didn't know anything about fruits before I took her class. The whole process is mind blowing," said Amanda Snodgrass, a senior in horticulture. "Now when I go to the store, I look at the apples, strawberries and blueberries and I know how much work it took to get those there."

Engaging students is key to Nonnecke's success as a teacher. It's what she learned from her professors, who engaged growers and farmers during extension workshops at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. And when she began teaching as a graduate assistant in 1976, she took their lead.

"To connect with students," Nonnecke said, "you need to make the information relevant to the world they live in."

Taking the learning abroad

Connecting students at the global level also is one of Nonnecke's talents. She and Nick Christians, also a University Professor of horticulture, took students to Scotland on the first travel course in horticulture in 1998. Nonnecke has since conducted many student trips to different places throughout the world.

One of those trips included Uganda. Iowa State students traveled with Nonnecke to participate in the College of Agriculture and Life Science's service learning projects, which is part of the Center For Sustainable Rural Livelihoods project. They teamed up with students from Makerere University in Uganda to provide farmers and families with the basic skills to survive and thrive.

The school garden project in Uganda helps elementary students understand the importance of nutrition and teaches them how to maintain a garden for food. It also encourages Iowa State students to share their skills and experiences and to learn from another culture.

"Students studying nutrition can teach Ugandan children those basics," said Wasko, who traveled to Uganda with Nonnecke in 2007 as part of the undergraduate team. "It's an amazing experience and the Iowa State students soon realize the value of agriculture."

New major has global focus

Last fall, Nonnecke was named faculty coordinator of the Global Resource Systems program, a new major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that will enroll its first students this fall. She said students today are service-oriented and want to pursue careers that make a difference, especially on the global level.

"It's an interdisciplinary major that allows students to pick an international region, language and an area of expertise to pursue. We are getting a lot of interest in it," Nonnecke said.

International work isn't new to Nonnecke. She has traveled to at least 22 countries for professional purposes. She began with an internship at a German horticulture research institute as a 19-year-old and has worked with horticulture scientists in China, India, Latvia and Hungary, to name a few.

"I've been lucky to work in a position where you get to meet the end-users of your research -- the growers and farmers," Nonnecke said.

Nonnecke has been recognized numerous times for her teaching skills. In 2007, she was named Iowa Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. In 2006, she received the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Agricultural Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award, one of just two awards presented nationally.

She has taught more than 3,000 students in horticulture and she hears from many.

"A lot of graduates send holiday cards," Nonnecke said. "And it's one of the most joyful experiences to know they are successful, both professionally and in their personal lives."

What's her secret to a fruitful career? Nonnecke said she always has a desire to do better.

"Success is 90 percent desire," she said.


"To connect with students, you need to make the information relevant to the world they live in."

Gail Nonnecke