Students at the University of Rhode Island have the opportunity to take a general education course focused on exploring the complexities and wonders of the Pharmacy Medicinal Garden.

Taught by Professor Navindra Seeram, the course is titled Herbal Medicines and Functional Food (BPS 203).

Seeram said that “the course that [he teaches] was primarily only for pharmacy students, because they have to learn about natural products and medicinal plants.” This class allows the pharmacy students to be exposed to a discipline called pharmacognosy, the branch of knowledge concerning medicinal drugs that are obtained from plants and other natural sources. But after many students reached out to Seeram expressing an interest in the course who were not in the pharmacy program, Seeram was able to turn BPS 203 into a general education course offered to both freshmen and sophomores, no matter their major.

Offered for the past four years during the spring semester, this course introduces many students to the different natural medicines of the world, as well as the natural plant components found in other medicine such as Aspirin and cancer-treating drugs.

“In the class itself the students are seeing what a green tea plant looks like… what the chemical constituents in the plant that will benefit you… and what the potentials for herb-drug interaction are,” Seeram said.

While he enjoys teaching non-pharmacy undergraduate students, Seeram admits to it being difficult at points. A large variety of students take his course, many of whom have a very limited science background making it very different for the other pharmacy courses that Seeram teaches.

“It’s very challenging to simplify a subject that’s inherently science to students who don’t have a huge science background,” he said.

The students who take this course are “usually very interested because they know of people who take [supplements], they take it themselves, or they want to be more aware of medicinal plants,” Seeram said. He added that he has many students who are majoring in nutrition and kinesiology, but also students in the humanities like film and communication.

Within the course, Seeram tries to focus on a lot of project and team based learning so that the students don’t spend the entire time listening to him lecture. He allows them to come up with imaginative ways to explore how to explain the complex ideas and terminologies in simple ways so that students and others are able to understand everything even with a limited science background.

“I try not to overwhelm them [with] so much chemistry as compared to my pharmacy students” but Seeram explains how science is still a very integral part to the subject matter.

Seeram is also able to add two very interesting things to his class. Since supplements and natural medicines are such a hot topic in the science world today, his students are able to look at current affairs going on right now and connect them to what they are learning in the class. Seeram also brings his own research into the class, which allows his students to see work on the things that they are learning that has not yet been published.

“I think students identify with [all this] because it is so real,” Seeram said. “It’s a very hot topic given that natural products are increasing in their everyday use.”

As one of the only schools in the Northeast who has a medicinal garden, URI is very lucky in that it offers a course like this that is open to all and every student. Seeram said that for students who are open to learning something new and are not afraid of challenging yourself, then this is the course to take.