Category Archives: Education

Some good stuff in the recent edition of CBE Life Sciences Education

Diversity of flowering plant species
High School Students’ Learning and Perceptions of Phylogenetics of Flowering Plants. CBE Life Sci Educ vol. 13 no. 4 653-665 doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-04-0074
Basic phylogenetics and associated “tree thinking” are often minimized or excluded in formal school curricula. Informal settings provide an opportunity to extend the K–12 school curriculum, introducing learners to new ideas, piquing interest in science, and fostering scientific literacy. Similarly, university researchers participating in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outreach activities increase awareness of college and career options and highlight interdisciplinary fields of science research and augment the science curriculum. To aid in this effort, we designed a 6-h module in which students utilized 12 flowering plant species to generate morphological and molecular phylogenies using biological techniques and bioinformatics tools. The phylogenetics module was implemented with 83 high school students during a weeklong university STEM immersion program and aimed to increase student understanding of phylogenetics and coevolution of plants and pollinators. Student response reflected positive engagement and learning gains as evidenced through content assessments, program evaluation surveys, and program artifacts. We present the results of the first year of implementation and discuss modifications for future use in our immersion programs as well as in multiple course settings at the high school and undergraduate levels.

 

Student Interpretations of Phylogenetic Trees in an Introductory Biology Course. CBE Life Sci Educ vol. 13 no. 4 666-676 doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-01-0003
Phylogenetic trees are widely used visual representations in the biological sciences and the most important visual representations in evolutionary biology. Therefore, phylogenetic trees have also become an important component of biology education. We sought to characterize reasoning used by introductory biology students in interpreting taxa relatedness on phylogenetic trees, to measure the prevalence of correct taxa-relatedness interpretations, and to determine how student reasoning and correctness change in response to instruction and over time. Counting synapomorphies and nodes between taxa were the most common forms of incorrect reasoning, which presents a pedagogical dilemma concerning labeled synapomorphies on phylogenetic trees. Students also independently generated an alternative form of correct reasoning using monophyletic groups, the use of which decreased in popularity over time. Approximately half of all students were able to correctly interpret taxa relatedness on phylogenetic trees, and many memorized correct reasoning without understanding its application. Broad initial instruction that allowed students to generate inferences on their own contributed very little to phylogenetic tree understanding, while targeted instruction on evolutionary relationships improved understanding to some extent. Phylogenetic trees, which can directly affect student understanding of evolution, appear to offer introductory biology instructors a formidable pedagogical challenge.

 

Crocus, saffron-omics and the highest value crop

Saffron, Crocus sativus and origin label

Saffron, Crocus sativus and a protected origin label

Saffron, the stigma of Crocus sativus, is the highest priced agricultural product (often €/$25 or £15 per gram) and a good example of a profitable crop with sustainability, cultural and social values, and high labour demand. I have been discussing –omics studies of the crop – the DNA, RNA, metabolites and secondary products – at the annual meeting of a European Science Foundation COST programme Saffronomics.

www.Saffronomics.org logo

www.Saffronomics.org logo

The ‘Action’ aims to coordinate research on Saffron-omics for crop improvement, traceability of the product, determination of authenticity, adulteration and origin to provide new insights that will lead a sound Saffron Bio-Economy. Despite the high price, the spice costs only a few pence/cents per portion, and adds enormously to the flavour and colour of many dishes. Biologically, saffron is the species Crocus sativus, as recognized by Linnaeus, and it is a sterile triploid with 2n=3x=24 chromosomes.

Audience for annual meeting

Audience for annual meeting

The programme of our Annual Meeting opened with the genomics sessions – the DNA, RNA, genetics and epigenetics. I don’t usually start reviews with, nor indeed include, my own talk, but here its content sets the scene for other work discussed at the meeting. I talked about the work of Nauf Alsayid, who shows the lack of any clear DNA differences between any accessions of saffron – whether from Kashmir, Greece, Italy, Spain, Holland or Iran. I cited a paper from 1900, itself reporting work back to 1844, where the French botanist Monsieur Paul Chappellier reported “for the Saffron, there is only known a single and unique species; for ages it has not produced a single variety”, writing that he was importing bulbs Naples, Athens, Austria, Spain, Cashmere and China (Chappellier P 1900. Creation of an improved variety of Crocus sativus. J. Royal Horticultural Society XXIV Hybrid Conference Report 275-277 – brilliant download, even available free for Kindle!). Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Highest quality Saffron from Thiercelin 1809

Highest quality Saffron from Thiercelin 1809

After my talk, Jean Marie Thiercelin, the seventh generation of the major saffron and spice company http://www.thiercelin1809.com told me that his grandfather knew Paul Chappellier, and he commented in the history of saffron production in France: Chappellier knew how to produce 10 to 15kg per ha before the First World War. After the war, saffron production stopped altogether in France, but it has restarted this century, with now some 137 growers on 37 ha but production of only some 5kg per ha.

Continuing with the talks, a DNA-sequence level study of saffron by Gerhardt Menzel with Thomas Schmidt (Dresden) analysed of several Gigabases of genomic survey sequence data, revealing about ten distinct tandemly repeated satellite DNA sequences that could be used to identify chromosomes in saffron by in situ hybridization. The species has a 78% repeat content in the DNA, with about 6% being the rDNA, and many different classes of transposons.

Giovanni Giuliano - High trhougput sequencing of saffron RNA and gene discovery

Giovanni Giuliano – High throughput sequencing of saffron RNA and gene discovery

Giovanni Giliano (with Sarah Frusciante, Italy) demonstrated the carotenoid cleavage dioxygenase from saffron stigmas catlayses the first step in saffron crocin biosynthesis, a clear example of the pathway to the critical secondary product giving saffron its value (http://www.pnas.org/content/111/33/12246.short).


Slivia Fluch - Saffronomics Genomics Working Group Leader

Slivia Fluch – Saffronomics Genomics Working Group Leader

Both Matteo Busconi and Silvia Fluch (Austria) discussed epigenetic differences detected from different saffron collections: important for both understanding the controls on gene expression and for determining the origin of samples. Each producing area seems to have distinct profiles. Caterina Villa (Porto) reported results from use of the plant ‘barcoding’ primers ITS and matK with high resolution DNA melting analysis for saffron authentication, and more detail about the chloroplast genomes was presented from Bahattin Tanyolac and his Turkish colleagues. Although wild species of crocus are of interest from several points of view, only one paper, from Joze Bavcon (Slovenia) discussed these in detail, with a report of the natural hybrid Crocus reticulatus x C. vernus.

Joze Bavcon Crocus of Slovenia Book Cover

Joze Bavcon Crocus of Slovenia Book Cover

The next group of talks discussed the saffron metabolome, the analysis of different constituents of Crocus. Crocus is one of the few species to have its own international standard (ISO3632: http://j.mp/isosaffron ), and both quality and purity are measured (including contamination with stamens and pollen, along with detection of adulteration. Several participants were involved in the formulation of the standard, and Gianluca Paredi reported improvements that need less than the ISO methods needing no less than 23g of stigmas! Natural colours from plants such as Buddliea, Calendula, Curcum, Gardenia, safflower (Carthamus Asteraceae), cochineal (from the insect) and turmeric are widely mixed with saffron.

Chair of the Saffronomics Action Professor Maria Tsimidou

Chair of the Saffronomics Action Professor Maria Tsimidou

The Saffronomics project leader, Maria Tsimidou (Greece), used the three ISO3632 peaks for saffron – colouring strength from crocins absorbing at a peak wavelength of 440nm, aroma from safranal at 330nm, and taste (flavour) from picrocrocin at 257 nm – for examination of quality and authenticity of commercial saffron samples. Of 16 samples, 3 were adulterated, and half of the pure samples were graded in ‘category I’. Another amazing figure quoted was the price of saffron in quantity: of 75 tonnes imported to one county, only 35% is priced at more than $500 per kg. Authentic saffron could not be produced for anywhere approaching $1000/kg (typically $10-$15000/kg), so all this bulk product is fraudulent. Technology sessions in the meeting covered alternative quantification approaches to spectroscopy: Laura Ruth Cagliani in Milan tested  different solvents for extraction for NMR-based metabolomic characterization of authentic saffron distributed within the COST partners as well as the NMR evidence of absence of plant adulteration in those saffron samples.

Moschos Polissiou Saffronomics

Moschos Polissiou Saffronomics

A leading group from Thessaloniki was able to detect adulteration with as little as 15% cochineal. EA Petrakis and Moschos Polissiou demonstrated how FT-IR spectroscopy is promising to quantify small amounts of adulterants in saffron – safflower, Gardenia and tumeric – where diffuse reflectance mode provides rapidity, ease of use and minimal sample preparation. Other important reports discussed aging effects on profile of secondary metabolites (Paraskevi Karastamati Greece) and detection of herbicide residues (Christina Mitsi).

H stable Isotope Map from http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/cold-case-files-forging-forensic-isoscapes

H stable Isotope Map from http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/cold-case-files-forging-forensic-isoscapes

Micha Horacek (Austria) presented new results looking at the ratios of stable isotopes in saffron, a technique increasingly used to determine the origin of all agricultural produce. He showed the impressive map of with the gradient of water (hydrogen and oxygen) isotope ratio from North to South and from East to West in Europe. He also showed the differences in nitrogen stable isotope ratios depending of fertilizer use, and sulphur which depends on the underlying geology. Current work with saffron shows considerable year-to-year variation in the position of accessions from different regions of Europe, but the data is still being collected. Soon Micha will be getting a sample of our own, Leicester-lab-produced, saffron to add to his map!

Our hosts at RIKILT, the Food Safety and Quality Institute, Wageningen University, have much advanced applied science on food quality. An eye-opening talk by John van Duynhoven told us about rehydration of freeze dried blanched carrot with dynamic assessment of water movement in samples with and without blanching, freeze drying at -28 and -150C. Another series of images showed water transport and the impact of pre-cooking of rice, using magnetic resonance imaging MRI as a functional measurement of rice cooking. The final section discussed why crackers don’t crack: vapour transport during shelf life of crackers! Modelling of the nature of water transport links processing & formulation to the structure and on to functional and storage implications.


Fran Azafran - a school book about saffron

Fran Azafran – a school book about saffron

For ESF – COST projects, dissemination and public understanding are important, and participants were treated to a preview of a series of six school books about Fran Azafran and Franny Azafran by Manuel Delgado from Cuenca, Spain. I look forward to seeing these in full, and hopefully to their availability in other languages too.


At the podium

At the podium

Like the best of the projects, I feel that saffron science has moved in the last decade, (including research in the consortia www.crocusbank.org and www.saffronomics.org) with notable fundamental, technical and applied outcomes of our research. We know about its relatives and genome structure, key genes, metabolic processes and the key secondary products, and even understand epigenetic control, corm growth and dormancy. After 4000 years of being sold fake saffron, the fraudsters know now that we can test for saffron purity and quality!

Marta Rodlan (Vice Chair of the Action), Jose Antonio Fernández Perez and Jean Marie Thiercelin: key people in saffronomics

Marta Rodlan (Vice Chair of the Action), Jose Antonio Fernández Perez and Jean Marie Thiercelin: key people in saffronomics

Saffronomics Meeting Book Cover

Saffronomics Meeting Book Cover

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Research on Plant Science Teaching and Learning

CBE Life Sci Educ The September issue of CBE—Life Sciences Education is a Special Focus edition on plant science education:

Plant Behavior. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:363-368; doi:10.1187/cbe.14-06-0100
Plants are a huge and diverse group of organisms ranging from microscopic marine phytoplankton to enormous terrestrial trees. Stunning, and yet some of us take plants for granted. In this plant issue of LSE, WWW.Life Sciences Education focuses on a botanical topic that most people, even biologists, do not think about—plant behavior.

Book Review: Plant Biology for Young Children. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:369-370; doi:10.1187/cbe.14-06-0093
My Life as a Plant is an activity book targeted toward helping young children see the importance, relevance, and beauty of plants in our daily lives. The book succeeds at introducing children to plant biology in a fun, inquiry-based, and appropriately challenging way.

Understanding Early Elementary Children’s Conceptual Knowledge of Plant Structure and Function through Drawings. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:375-386; doi:10.1187/cbe.13-12-0230
We present the results of an early elementary study (K–1) that used children’s drawings to examine children’s understanding of plant structure and function.

Effects of a Research-Infused Botanical Curriculum on Undergraduates’ Content Knowledge, STEM Competencies, and Attitudes toward Plant Sciences. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:387-396; doi:10.1187/cbe.13-12-0231
This research-infused botanical curriculum increased students’ knowledge and awareness of plant science topics, improved their scientific writing, and enhanced their statistical knowledge.

Connections between Student Explanations and Arguments from Evidence about Plant Growth. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:397-409; doi:10.1187/cbe.14-02-0028
In an analysis of 22 middle and high school student interviews, we found that many students reinterpret the hypotheses and results of standard investigations of plant growth to match their own understandings. Students may benefit from instructional strategies that scaffold their explanations and inquiry about how plants grow.

Beyond Punnett Squares: Student Word Association and Explanations of Phenotypic Variation through an Integrative Quantitative Genetics Unit Investigating Anthocyanin Inheritance and Expression in Brassica rapa Fast Plants. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:410-424; doi:10.1187/cbe.13-12-0232
This study explores shifts in student word association and explanations of phenotypic variation through an integrative quantitative genetics unit using Brassica rapa Fast Plants.

Optimizing Learning of Scientific Category Knowledge in the Classroom: The Case of Plant Identification. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:425-436; doi:10.1187/cbe.13-11-0224
The software program Visual Learning—Plant Identification offers a solution to problems in category learning, such as plant identification. It uses well-established learning principles, including development of perceptual expertise in an active-learning format, spacing of practice, interleaving of examples, and testing effects to train conceptual learning.

Attention “Blinks” Differently for Plants and Animals. CBE Life Sci Educ September 2, 2014 13:437-443; doi:10.1187/cbe.14-05-0080
We use an established paradigm in visual cognition, the “attentional blink,” to demonstrate that our attention is captured more slowly by plants than by animals. This suggests fundamental differences in how the visual system processes plants, which may contribute to plant blindness considered broadly.

 

Planting the seeds

Dandelion Plant growth and development is a foundation concept in the science curriculum. Focus on plant characteristics and life cycles in early grades is particularly important because some evidence suggests that as children develop, their ability to notice plants, their assumptions about the importance of plants, and their interest in plants deteriorates. The conceptual understanding students develop about plants in the elementary grades therefore serves as a foundation for later science learning.

Work is needed to understand how elementary students can be supported to formulate scientific explanations, particularly about topics such as seed structure and function where students exhibit a variety of alternate conceptions. A new paper examines explanation-construction within the context of a long-term investigation about plants in three third-grade classrooms and asks the following research questions:

  1. How do third-grade students formulate written scientific explanations about seed structure and function?
  2. In what ways and why do third-grade teachers provide instructional support for students’ formulation of scientific explanations about seed structure and function?

 

Scientific Practices in Elementary Classrooms: Third-Grade Students’ Scientific Explanations for Seed Structure and Function. Science Education, 14 May 2014 doi: 10.1002/sce.21121
Abstract: Elementary science standards emphasize that students should develop conceptual understanding of the characteristics and life cycles of plants, yet few studies have focused on early learners’ reasoning about seed structure and function. The purpose of this study is twofold: to (a) examine third-grade students’ formulation of explanations about seed structure and function within the context of a commercially published science unit and (b) examine their teachers’ ideas about and instructional practices to support students’ formulation of scientific explanations. Data, collected around a long-term plant investigation, included classroom observations, teacher interviews, and students’ written artifacts. Study findings suggest a link between the teachers’ ideas about scientific explanations, their instructional scaffolding, and students’ written explanations. Teachers who emphasized a single “correct explanation” rarely supported their students’ explanation-construction, either through discourse or writing. However, one teacher emphasized the importance of each student generating his/her own explanation and more frequently supported students to do so in the classroom. The evidentiary basis of her students’ written explanations was found to be much stronger than those from students in the other two classrooms. Overall, these findings indicate that teachers’ conceptions about scientific explanations are crucial to their instructional practices, which may in turn impact students’ explanation-construction.

 

What a Plant Knows – MOOC Report

I’ll let you into a secret – I’m not really a plant scientist, I only masquarade as one on this blog. My day job involves science education and one of the main things I’m interested in is online learning, such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). This post first appeared on my personal/education blog, Science of the Invisible

What a Plant Knows What a Plant Knows comes as a refreshing change. This is down to the quality and enthusiasm of the teaching staff rather than any platform attribute.

Apart from a couple of statistics courses, the majority of the MOOCs I have taken were because I wanted to explore the platform and approach to learning being used rather than because of the subject matter. Coursera’s What a Plant Knows is different, because as the non-plant scientist Internet Consulting Editor of Annals of Botany, I feel that I really do want to learn more about plants.

Based on his book What a Plant Knows, Daniel Chamovitz fits into what I’ll call the Model B MOOC Professor – the big personality. In the grey world of MOOCs, this works well for me, although it would be very easy to tip over the edge and become irritating. As usual, there is a little too much talking head video, but clearly efforts have been made to include alternative formats. The assessment component is perfunctory, a few MCQs for each section. To their credit, teaching staff, including Daniel Chamovitz, are actively participating in the course discussions boards.

Week 1 was a good general introduction, although maybe slightly a little too “OH WOW, it’s a PLANT”. Week 2 on plant responses to light (“What A Plant Sees”) is right on the money – great stuff! Without any doubt this is the best Science MOOC I have seen yet.

Will this (very good) MOOC bring students flocking to the professional study of plant science? Not in any significant numbers – I can’t see us having to start a plant science degree to cope with student demand any time soon.

 

Bananas and their future on BBC Radio 4 The Food Programme @BBCFoodProg

Six banana varieties and banana products bought in Leicester, UKSix banana varieties and banana products bought in Leicester, UK

Six banana varieties and banana products bought in Leicester, UK

Bananas are our favourite fruit: you can hear lots about them on BBC Radio 4 The Food Programme, produced by award-winning BBC producer Emma Weatherill  and presented by Sheila Dillon, a University of Leicester graduate. A short version will be broadcast at 12.30pm today Sunday 8th August on BBC Radio 4 and the long version will be on Monday at 3.30pm on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to it via the iPlayer from this page. And from Monday afternoon you will be able to download a podcast of the programme from here (which might be useful for those of you living outside the UK.) In this piece, I will show some pictures of the things I talked about and amplify some of the points discussed.

Eating a banana curry from a banana leaf plate.

Eating a banana curry from a banana leaf plate.

As consumers in the UK, we are largely familiar with only one variety of banana – Cavendish. Can you imagine if we only knew about one model of one make of car? There are more than 1200 banana varieties known, each with its own distinctive flavour and texture. We also know about only one use, as a sweet dessert banana – this may be versatile as we eat them fresh, on toast, sliced in our cereal or in banana custard, but much of the world uses cooked bananas as a savoury starch instead of potato, or eats fried chips and even fermented beer. For the Radio programme, I was able to find six contrasting varieties of banana from Belgrave Road in Leicester, as well as different types of chips. The varieties shown and probably talked about in the programme include the ubiquitous Cavendish and the much smaller and fatter AAB Silk or Figue Pomme and smaller Prata (both very popular in West Africa and Brasil). These are more citrus and apple flavours, with some dry starchy mouthfeel in Silk as well. We also had three larger fruits of plantains: one was sweet enough to eat fresh, the others would be cooked or deep-fried, with the largest one being popular in West and Central Africa, Latin America, Brasil, India and Philippines. The medium sized one is and East Africa cooking banana, eaten as matoke, a steamed and mashed dish served with nearly every meal.

Harvesting bananas: the whole fruit bunch weights about 30kg and has 10 to 20 hands that we typically buy.

Harvesting bananas: the whole fruit bunch weights about 30kg and has 10 to 20 hands that we typically buy.

Bananas hold a world record: they are the world’s largest herbaceous plant, with many being 5 m or 15 feet tall. They are not trees since they do not have a trunk or produce wood – the stem (‘pseudo-stem’) is actually mostly made up of leaf bases, like a grass. After flowering and producing the fruit, which takes 9 to 12 months, the stem is cut back, and another side-sucker allowed to grow to produce the next generation. After 2 to 8 crops, the plants are replaced typically with new, disease free plants. We do occasionally see banana plants, and their close relatives Canna, as ornamentals, but the leaves have other uses as plates for food or as building materials. Wild bananas have seeds, but most of the cultivated types are sterile.

A wild diploid banana with large seeds surrounded by only a little pulp. Most cultivated bananas are triploid and sterile.A wild diploid banana with large seeds surrounded by only a little pulp. Most cultivated bananas are triploid and sterile.

A wild diploid banana with large seeds surrounded by only a little pulp. Most cultivated bananas are triploid and sterile. without seeds (although unusually, the fruits still develop in the absence of the seeds).

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I feckin love the Dead Zoo

William Sealy Gosset I’ve just got back from a short holiday in Ireland which was divided into two parts – botanising on the West coast (of which more later), and a short stay in Dublin, one of my favourite places to visit. Because we had a few first timers with us on this trip, we had to pay the required pilgrimage to the home of Student’s t test, and while we were there, it would have been rude not to sample the local produce in the fabulous Gravity Bar – one of my favourite watering holes and thus familiar territory. But one of the places in Dublin I’ve never managed to visit before was the Natural History collection of the National Museum of Ireland, known to locals as the Dead Zoo (as you may be able to tell from the title, I picked up a smattering of the local patois on this trip).

 

The Dead Zoo I was blown away by the Dead Zoo
I’ve got a lot of respect for David Attenborough, but when you see a two year old come face to face with a polar bear for the first time you know the impact of that meeting is going to last the kid a lifetime. The best thing about the Dead Zoo is that there are no crappy, inoperative multimedia interpretations of anything – no greasy iPads, no frozen Windows displays, this is just pure zoology. It certainly took me back to museum visits in my childhood that have stayed with me and influenced my choices. I could have spent hours browsing the entomology displays alone – whole cabinets of springtails (my favourite) – but there were so many highlights, such as the glass sea anemones, and the “wall of bats”.

 

But where are all the plants?
I am aware that the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin are very good, and I hope to visit them on a subsequent trip, but I have a problem with a national museum which advertises itself as a Natural History collection when the only plant life on display is a few fossil ferns. Just what do they think all those dead animals are going to eat? Based primarily on Victorian and Edwardian collections, the Dead Zoo tells us something important about botany – that the public perception of plants as second rate science is not a new phenomenon. That was the only depressing thought to come out of my discovery of the Dead Zoo. It means we still have a mountain to climb.

 

 

The Plant Science TREE (Tool for Research Engaged Education)

The Plant Science TREE (Tool for Research Engaged Education) is an on-line teaching tool giving access to inspirational educational resources from the research community.

Plant Science TREE

The Plant Science TREE provides access to around 2,000 downloadable research-informed lecture slides, animations, films and over 30 on-line lectures from the Gatsby Plant Science Summer Schools. With over 80 contributors a key strength of this teaching tool is that it is being developed by the research community. All downloadable content has been copyright cleared for educational use.

The Plant Science TREE is part of The Gatsby Plant Science Summer School Project. The producers have worked with the plant science reserch community to develop this educational resource using tried and tested teaching slides, lectures, animations, etc. from researchers who also teach. Content is updated by lectures from the annual summer school, delivered by world-leading experts covering global challenge issues and curiosity-driven research such as engineering metabolism for healthy foods; strategies to address food security; understanding biological circadian rhythms and more.

A new facility enables users to upload their own high quality slides or other resources, for which their contribution is credited.

Please take a look – browse or search a topic of interest and see if the downloadable resources (all cleared for copyright) help your teaching. Please also promote The TREE to non plant scientists in your departments who might find a relevant slide or two to show how plant science research contributes to our general understanding of biology.

All comments on the resource are welcome. Please contact Aurora Levesley (a.levesley@leeds.ac.uk) or Celia Knight (c.d.knight@leeds.ac.uk).

 

Plant Identification Skills

Plant Identification Skills Taxonomic education and botany are increasingly neglected in schools and universities, leading to a ‘missed generation’ of adults that cannot identify organisms, especially plants.

The ‘taxonomic illiteracy’ of Western cultures has been recognised but limited research exists on the most effective methods for teaching species identification, especially in adults. A recent House of Lords inquiry described the state of taxonomy and systematics in the UK as ‘unsatisfactory’ and a shortage of trained taxonomists, especially for less charismatic taxa, has resulted in a ‘taxonomic impediment’ to effectively monitoring and managing biodiversity. Taxonomy is one of the science areas where ‘citizen scientists’ can most meaningfully participate but there is a need for more training in identification skills and novel training methods to raise both interest and awareness.

Botany has long been a neglected aspect of biological education in curricula, textbooks and courses from school to university level. The cycle is self-perpetuating, with biology teachers neglecting botany because of its absence in their own education. In a study of A-level biology students for example, 86% could recognise only three or fewer native plant species – which is not surprising, as their teachers’ botanical identification skills were also poor. Botanical education is an integral component of ecology, and the rapid loss of plant life and its implications for mankind deserves a more prominent role in education.

In the School of Biological Sciences at Leicester we have been aware of these problems for some time and working to mitigate them. The University Botanic Garden offers the public an opportunity to study for an Advanced Certificate in Plant Identification, and students on our Biological Sciences degrees can also take a similar Plant Identification Skills module for academic credit.

A new paper in the Journal of Biological Education makes a strong case for the importance of such public and academic courses, and the contribution that ‘Citizen Scientists’ can make in this area, which does not require any expensive equipment, only knowledge and enthusiasm (Bethan Stagg & Maria Donkin (2013) Teaching botanical identification to adults: experiences of the UK participatory science project ‘Open Air Laboratories’, Journal of Biological Education, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2013.764341).

Teaching people about plants does not rival the glamour aspects of medical research, but is possibly no less important in terms of the contribution that academic education can make to society.

 

Real education with virtual materials

Plant stem This paper, just published in the Journal of Biological Education, strikes me as having a lot of potential. The method would also be appropriate for online learning and in developing countries where facilities might be limiting. Why not give it a go?

 

Stephen P. Bonser, Patrick de Permentier, Jacinta Green, Gary M. Vela , Paul Adam and Rakesh K. Kumar (2013) Engaging students by emphasising botanical concepts over techniques: innovative practical exercises using virtual microscopy, Journal of Biological Education, DOI: 10.1080/00219266.2013.764344
Abstract:
Student interest in botany and enrolment in plant sciences courses tends to be low compared to that in other biological disciplines. One potential way of increasing student interest in botany is to focus on course material designed to raise student enthusiasm and satisfaction. Here, we introduce and evaluate virtual microscopy in botany teaching. Virtual microscopy uses high-resolution digital ‘virtual slides’ that allow students to explore microscope sections without the advanced skills required to prepare glass slides. Questionnaire feedback from students indicated that students found the virtual slides an effective learning tool. Further, we found that student performance in assessments was significantly higher when using virtual slides than when using traditional glass slides. We suggest that virtual slides are an effective tool for increasing student satisfaction in introductory botany courses, and have the potential for increasing student enrolment in higher-level courses (honours) and research.