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John Ball Provides Students With Unique Real-World Experiences

Professor John Ball with students at Machu Picchu
John Ball (left) at Machu Picchu with horticulture students Andrew Miller, Casey Snyder, Courtney Birkholtz and Courtney Lenort.

John Ball, a professor in the South Dakota State University Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science Department, received the Malo Teaching Excellence Award at the department’s annual scholarship recognition event for his dedication to student learning. 

“John’s commitment to teaching is extraordinary,” said Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science Department Head David Wright. “He fosters an environment of intellectual excitement and students want to learn when he teaches.” 

Ball has been teaching at SDSU since 1991. He has taught a wide range of classes, most of which are related to arboriculture and horticulture. He currently teaches Woody Plants, Forest Ecology, Horticultural Pests, and Arboriculture and Urban Forestry. 

“Throughout Ball’s career at SDSU, he has been recognized by his students as being one of the best instructors in the department and on campus,” said Distinguished Professor Douglas Malo, who retired this spring after 43 years as a professor in the Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science Department. Malo and his wife, Rosalie, have sponsored the Malo Teaching Excellence Award and endowment since 2005 to recognize outstanding professors. Recipients of the award are selected based on peer and student recommendations and teaching accomplishments. 

Ball believes it is important to provide his students with real-life experiences. His additional positions as the SDSU Extension Forestry Specialist and South Dakota Department of Agriculture Forest Health Specialist help him accomplish this goal. One example is the students in his Forest Ecology class are responsible for providing the state with an estimated number of trees that are infested with pine beetles each year. 

Students with a cottonwood tree they cut down.
One of John Ball’s arboriculture classes removed a cottonwood tree at Black Hills State University in Spearfish.

He provides his students with many other unique opportunities, including trimming trees on the SDSU campus and for various other locations throughout the state. Students in his classes also get to practice climbing trees, using aerial lifts and cutting trees. 

“I am a big fan of getting students out and doing hands-on work because I want them to have an understanding of what a job in this field will really be like,” Ball said.

He also used to teach a rock-climbing class at SDSU. For the class final, he brought the students to climb the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.  

Taking students on international trips is one of the highlights of his career so far. Ball has taken students to South America and Europe numerous times for horticulture-focused trips. Several times he has brought SDSU students to work with students at SDSU’s sister college, Unidad Académica Campesina in Carmen Pampa, Bolivia. He tries to go on an international trip with students every few years. 

“I find it really enjoyable and rewarding to get students out to experience different cultures,” he said. 

As a professor, Ball strives to find and unlock students’ potential.  

He said, “It’s so fun to help students get a solid foundation for their futures and then after college to see them progress in their careers is really rewarding. To think I have a small role in what students choose to do is really cool.”