2016 PK-12 Spotlight

John Cavaletto

The College of Agriculture PK-12 Council Outreach and Engagement Awards reward faculty and staff involved in successful outreach and engagement activities and encourage others to improve upon and expand those activities. Winner of the 2016 PK-12 Excellence Staff Award is John Cavaletto, teaching laboratories coordinator in botany and plant pathology.

A general botany course taught by Emeritus Professor Carole Lembi inspired John Cavaletto to choose undergraduate study in Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue. That same course today comprises the bulk of the job Cavaletto has held at his alma mater for 18 years. His keen interest in teaching and research, plus experience as a teaching assistant in undergraduate and graduate Botany courses, made him a natural for the new position created shortly after he completed his master's degree at Purdue in 1997.

"John ha​s elevated the outreach and engagement activities of the whole department and of the college."
​—Peter Goldsbrough, department head, Department of Botany and Plant Pathology

As the department's teaching laboratory coordinator, Cavaletto manages the laboratory component of several courses. He recruits, hires, trains, and supervises the TAs; prepares supplies; edits lab exercises and writes exams; and executes a daunting to-do list related to students' hands-on experiences.

So it's all the more noteworthy that Cavaletto participates in outreach and engagement largely on his own initiative. While they're outside his normal Purdue responsibilities, he is quick to point out that every department head he's worked with has been encouraging and supportive.

From 1998 to 2006 Cavaletto was involved with plant science-themed displays at Purdue's popular Spring Fest. He also developed an interest in the College of Agriculture's programs to attract underrepresented minority students and is an instructor for the Purdue Agribusiness and Science Academy and research mentor for the Purdue University Pre-College Molecular Agriculture Summer Institute. Since summer 2013, he has worked with AP Biology classes and mentored high school students on science fair projects. Such activities pull him out from behind the scenes "and allow me to share my passion with students," he says.

Outreach also informs his Purdue work. For example, Cavaletto might develop and pilot class materials in a workshop before incorporating them into a Botany and Plant Pathology lab. "Upper-level high school and lower-level college seem like two completely different areas, but for me, they're contiguous," he explains. "They strengthen each other."

The key to engaging K-12 students in learning is to get their hands on the plants, Cavaletto says. "I can never tell the students what we're going to find. It's a real hook for them, that there are still things to discover in our world." In summer 2013 a science fair student—using methods Cavaletto adapted to isolate and grow some of the yeasts from plant leaves on agar plates—isolated a yeast that had never been characterized. That same student recently completed her sophomore year in Botany at Purdue.

His work makes Cavaletto optimistic about the students, scientists, and educators of tomorrow. "Seeing the university putting so much emphasis behind plant science makes it such an exciting time here," he says.

Cavaletto is still considering how he will use the monetary prize that accompanies the PK-12 Excellence Staff Award. "I might want to explore something that might not, on the face, be my normal outreach," he says—perhaps ways to support and encourage teachers in plant science. Something, he adds, "where I can have the most impact and that will be the most fun for me."​​​​​​​

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