Dan Stearns, professor emeritus of landscape contracting at Penn State University, first got a taste of being an educator while in graduate school. He knew it was something he would enjoy as a profession.
While the right opportunity didn’t come around for another 12 years, Stearns says his time spent in the industry, working as a landscape architect for the New York State Department of Transportation and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in North Carolina—as well as operating his own landscape design/build firm in Massachusetts—set him up to be even better in the classroom.
In his time at Penn State, Stearns was known as an innovator and a national leader in the field. He coordinated the college’s landscape contracting major while also teaching undergraduate courses in residential landscape planning, landscape planting design, landscape construction and landscape estimating and bidding.
Recently named the 2019 Outstanding Educator of the Year for NALP, we caught up with Stearns to find out more about his career.
What do you love most about being an educator?
Working with students. Whether a first-year student or a returning adult, they all have a curiosity and a level of energy that is impressive. Observing an individual develop both academically and personally during their college years is second only to seeing them graduate and move on to become successful professionals, partners and parents.
What is your proudest moment as a horticulture educator?
There are some students who must work harder than others to succeed. The ones who might struggle, but who overcome major hurdles and are all smiles on graduation day, make me the proudest.
What is the No. 1 lesson you hope students take away from your classes?
“Just because you have completed a class doesn’t mean the learning can slow down or stop.” The pace of innovation requires constant learning and adaptation. Since much of the technology we teach today will be obsolete in a very short time, students must develop a process for learning that will serve them well as they strive to remain up-to-date. They must also develop a set of ethics that will follow them in business and in life.
What is your biggest challenge today as a horticulture educator?
Spreading the word that the landscape contracting profession is an exciting, rewarding and profitable one. The industry has room for growth but will be limited by the availability of new-hires who are educated in horticulture, design, construction and business management.
What do you think is the most significant barrier today to getting young people interested in the landscape industry?
The perception that the industry is about long hours, low pay and hard physical work. Of course, it can be any or all of those things, but prospective students have to be aware of the fabulous and varied opportunities that are available. The effort to attract young people to the industry must start in the elementary and secondary schools. Hands-on experience with plants, construction techniques, maintenance activities and design need to be integrated into the overall school curriculum.
Who is your mentor or idol?
I have had many mentors—from my professors to past employers and co-workers to my many colleagues in academia. From each I have learned and to each I owe a debt of gratitude. I have relied on many others for their experience and expertise in the development of effective teaching methods. I have also learned much from the many industry partners who have unselfishly given their time to bring current and best practices directly to the classroom.
What is your favorite business book?
Steve Cohan’s “Business Principles of Landscape Contracting.” This book is a must-read for anyone who is managing a landscape contracting company. Quality design, construction and maintenance are key components of a successful business, but managers must have a clear understanding of costs, including overhead, and must be able to forecast and track profits. This book addresses the important aspects of managing and growing a business.
What does it mean to you to be the educator of the year?
I have seen many fine educators receive this award in previous years, and I know how much respect I have for them as educators and as mentors. To be listed alongside them is a great honor, one for which I am both humbled and grateful.
In five years, where do you see horticulture education? Where will you be?
I think we will see more online learning with enhanced opportunities for a flexible curriculum where students can combine courses to suit their individual interests and needs. In five years, I expect to still be involved in the landscape industry, whether through consulting, teaching or mentoring. I will continue to follow the careers of those with whom I have had the good fortune to see become productive landscape professionals.
What advice would you give to other horticulture educators trying to get more young people interested in the landscaping field?
Work with NALP to develop a comprehensive nationwide message that extols the vitality of the industry and the rewards to be gained from working with plants and other materials to enhance our outdoor living environs. Make sure the message reaches the target audience in a way that doesn’t require them to do a web search in order to find it.