Cathie Lavis, Ph.D., professor and extension specialist of landscape management for Kansas State University has been named the Outstanding Educator of the Year for 2021. Lavis has been teaching at Kansas State since 1990, starting as a graduate student. She has been described as passionate, driven and persistent. Lavis is always incorporating new teaching strategies into her courses that focus on student development of critical thinking skills.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Oklahoma State and a master’s degree in ornamental horticulture from Kansas State. A colleague strongly urged her to earn a Ph.D. so while teaching full time, she earned her Ph.D. in agronomy from Kansas State in 2005.
In many of the nomination letters, her former students, colleagues and industry leaders praised Lavis for her dedication to her students and her desire to see each individual succeed.
This award was presented to Lavis virtually during the 45th National Collegiate Landscape Competition. Lavis is retiring after this spring semester and NALP caught up with her to learn more about her career.
When did you first become interested in horticulture?
I actually fell into horticulture, my BS is in agronomy. I was in Bryan-College Station in the late 80s, seeking employment, driving down Texas Blvd and saw a garden store and said to myself, “I could work at a garden store,” sent out resumes and a cover letter to all in the ‘yellow pages’ and one was looking for a manager, the rest is history.
How did you end up an educator yourself?
No intention of doing so, fell into it while doing graduate teaching, was offered an instructor position upon completion of my MS, started teaching plant materials, horticulture science and plant propagation. Soon landscape maintenance, landscape contracts and construction and arboriculture courses needed a teacher, I was asked by the department head, Dr. Tom Warner, to teach these courses, I jumped at the opportunity.
How did you settle on irrigation and ornamental horticulture as your specialties?
Again, it kind of found me, I knew our program needed an irrigation course and about that time, Kevin Marks, now with SiteOne Landscape was asked by the Irrigation Association if he knew someone at the university that might be interested in partnering with them to develop course modules at the college level. Kevin found me through a local landscape company who recommended he call me.
Kevin and I have been friends now since 1998. I rolled out the horticultural irrigation course in 1999. When I moved back to Manhattan, Kansas, in 1990, before returning to school to earn my MS, I started taking care of residential properties, full-scale maintenance, mowing, pruning and planting. My passion is landscape and tree care, so teaching these related courses is natural. I used many of my learned experiences in my teaching.
What do you love most about being an educator?
Watching students grow and entering this amazing industry, so rewarding to see so many now with a foothold in our industry. Some work for companies, others owning their own business.
What is your proudest moment as a horticulture educator?
I have so many, but one that always sticks was years ago when Michigan State hosted (NCLC). One of my students, Ambur Gossen, competed in irrigation design, a hard event. She came to my hotel that Thursday night so upset. She said she had tried so hard, and my response was, “Great, you gave it your all!” You can imagine our team’s surprise at the closing ceremony when Ambur was announced the winner of the event!
What is the No. 1 lesson you hope students take away from your classes?
I always say to them, “If you understand how, you’ll have a job; if you understand why, you’ll be the boss or owner. You’ve come to earn your university degree to know the ‘why.’”
What is your biggest challenge as an educator?
Honestly, many young people have not been taught how to work hard and persist in challenging times, many want a grade handed to them. I will say I’m seeing a difference after COVID; I think many people realize how lucky they are to be here and to learn. I can’t put my finger on it, but many are more engaged than before COVID, they ask questions, seek understanding and want to try their hand at whatever we might be doing in labs.
What do you think is a significant barrier preventing young people from being interested in the landscape industry?
They don’t know about horticulture, this too may change after COVID. As we have all seen, there is a renewed interest in nature, plants and being outside. So many young people get exposed to horticulture by grandparents and parents, working in their yards and gardens. I think people who did not grow plants before started last spring; we know this by plant shortages last spring. Also, this is hard work, many people have become too soft. I know I’m being honest, but it’s true. I love good physical work, and many young people have not had to work outside. In summary, I go back to exposure to the world of horticulture.
Who is your mentor?
I’ve been so blessed to have many supportive colleagues on my path of college teaching. I do owe much to Dr. Greg Davis for asking me to help him coach our ALCA team back in 2003, we’ve been coaches for our team in every sense. Dr. Kim Williams has helped me a great deal, especially while earning my Ph.D. and she mentored me through the years of assistant professor through becoming tenured and also as I moved up for promotion to full professor. Dr. Chad Miller and I have developed a strong study abroad program. This has been so enriching for both students and myself.
What does it mean to you to be the Educator of the Year?
I am truly blessed to have had so many amazing students, colleagues and industry friends to interact with throughout my university career. This award recognition is such an honor and a wonderful way to end my teaching career.
In five years, where do you see horticulture education?
Wow, that’s a challenging question. At this time, my teaching colleagues and I are actually trying to look into that same crystal ball! However, I think there will be a renewed interest in gardening, which will increase the demand for educated professionals as more laypeople will need help at the homeowner and community level.
What advice would you give to other horticulture educators trying to get young people interested in the landscaping field?
Most horticultural educators know that hands-on learning is critical, they must see, feel and touch what they are learning. Even during COVID, my students had to go outside their homes and learn trees. They had to get up close and personal. Same things with any topic, people have to physically adjust a sprinkler to really understand how to do it, watching someone else doesn’t work. This is true for any real learning in horticulture.
This article was published in the May/June issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Landscape Professional magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.