Non-Degree Cannabis Courses Open Doors to Growing Industry

New classes make cannabis education more accessible for UConn students and the general public

Close up of cannabis leaves


UConn made waves in 2019 when it announced it would begin offering the nation’s first university class on the fundamentals of cannabis horticulture. The state’s flagship university is now expanding its educational opportunities for students and the general public with online courses in basic and advanced cannabis growing that are open to all.

Classes on the emerging industry have been in high demand, a fact that Gerald “Gerry” Berkowitz has been predicting for years.

Berkowitz, a professor of plant science in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, is an internationally recognized cannabis scientist who is leading UConn’s efforts in teaching, research, and industry partnerships. He recognized the need for science-based courses in cannabis horticulture and has helped hundreds of students explore opportunities in the growing field.

While Berkowitz and other UConn instructors have offered the introductory course previously, adding the advanced option is an important step towards a potential degree program.

“Our students see career potential and want to gain experience. Businesses need highly trained scientists to support the growth of this industry, and they are seeking talented graduates to enter their workforce,” said Berkowitz in an earlier interview. “By offering more and more targeted courses, we can help both groups. It’s a win-win.”

Since the ground-breaking UConn course launched two years ago, public perception and legislation related to cannabis have continued to evolve.

Nationally, many states have seen public support for legalization of marijuana, a type of cannabis that contains higher levels of the psychoactive chemical THC. Every ballot initiative involving the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in the 2020 election passed.

In Connecticut, debates over changing cannabis laws are an ever-present fixture in the news. Medical marijuana has been legal in Connecticut since 2012, and a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use recently passed through the Labor and Public employees Committee. Governor Ned Lamont has also introduced a proposal for legalization.

During the initial COVID-19 lockdowns last March, it became clear that cannabis had transitioned from illicit drug to necessary medicine in public opinion. Many states, including Connecticut, deemed marijuana dispensaries essential services, highlighting the growing interest and acceptance of cannabis.

With the interest in cannabis continuing to grow on all fronts, Berkowitz and the lead instructor of UConn’s courses, Matthew DeBacco, decided to develop additional offerings taught by scientific experts. They also wanted non-UConn students to have more access to opportunities in the lucrative cannabis industry too, as a way to help citizens in the state and beyond. As a result, the classes are fully online and have no pre-requisites, making them accessible to anyone, all over the world.

In the introductory class, students are exposed to all aspects of the growing process. The plants, which are different than marijuana because of their low levels of THC, are used as examples for class demonstrations. Even in the online class, students learn about a range of horticultural methods applied to cannabis, such as transplanting, training plants to alter canopy and flower architecture, culling males, pest management, and more.

DeBacco, an adjunct plant science instructor, created a unique “choose your own adventure” model for the advanced course that focuses in more detail on growing cannabis successfully. With this model, students can choose to dig deeper on aspects that are of the most interest to them, getting greater insight into certain parts of the process. This will include allowing students to learn how to propagate from seeds or clones, as well as the finer aspects of growing indoors versus outdoors.

The advanced course will also focus on various other aspects of the cannabis business.

‘Blazing New Ground’

In addition to DeBacco and Berkowitz, other UConn cannabis researchers are putting UConn as the cutting-edge of cannabis innovation. For example, Yi Li, a professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture,has been developing gene editing technologies for cannabis to manipulate commercially important genes in the plant, and Jessica Lubell-Brand, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, is developing new hemp varieties and methods to improve commercial production.

UConn is well positioned to offer these unique courses because of the University’s strengths in cannabis research and innovation, says Indrajeet Chaubey, dean of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

“Faculty at the University of Connecticut have expertise across the cannabis spectrum – from cutting-edge research to legal and ethical issues, and cannabis-related entrepreneurship,” says Chaubey. “There is tremendous demand from students and industry, and we’re happy to provide courses that can better prepare them for success.”

Berkowitz hopes the expansion of the courses will help pave the way to develop a much larger program to keep up with emerging cannabis activity.

“It’s a great opportunity for UConn to capitalize on an area of academics that’s really just developing,” Berkowitz says. “We’re blazing new ground.”

The introductory cannabis course (offered during summer session 1) will run from June 1 to July 2, 2021. Registration is open until June 7, 2021. The Advanced Cannabis Horticulture: Production and Industry course will be offered during summer session 2; July 12-August 13, 2021. Visit Horticulture of Cannabis for more information and to register.