Category Archives: Education

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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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).

 

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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.

 

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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.

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Suggestions needed for the ten best of everything: plants for botanists

Three plant species for my ten best of everything: wheat, pine and arabidopsis

Three plant species for my ten best of everything: wheat, pine and arabidopsis

Some time ago, I started on an AoBBlog post (or maybe posts) on ten plants that all botanists should know quite a lot about. Criteria for inclusion on my list include, at the least, importance in the environment, importance to people as food or culturally, scientific interest, global nature, and evolutionary position. Together, the species (genera? even families?) chosen should illustrate a wide range of botany and complement each other. So, here I give my current list of starters; the order is computer-sorted random.

Wheat (or rice)

Arabidopsis

Drosera (or Pinguicula)

A legume – but which one? Acacia? Arachis? Trifolium? Pisum? Glycine?

Physcomitrella (or Sphagnum or another non-vascular plant)

Wollemi pine (Ponderosa pine?)

Rose

Banana

Lycopodium

Oak

I’m deliberately not including reasons for my choices here – they will be included in the final posts – but suggestions of what I have missed would be welcome – along with those species that should not make the cut and should be replaced. I suppose I could stretch to a dozen species if needs be.

Comments below please!

Carving in Perugia: the cultural importance of three families of my top ten species

Carving in Perugia: the cultural importance of three families of my top ten species

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Galleria Carnivora

Dionea

Image via sarracenia.com

Jeff Karron (AoB’s “pollen Editor”) recently tipped me off about Galleria Carnivora, a museum of colour photographs of carnivorous plants. There are lots of images online, but Galleria Carnivora is laid out as a virtual mueseum you can tour, and the comrehensiveness of the collection is stunning.

Reuse of images for education purposes is allowed, but check the terms and conditions. Barry Rice is the man behind it all, and deserves a lot of credit for putting together such a great resource.

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ChloroFilms – plant videos on YouTube

Jeff Karron (AoB’s “pollen Editor”) recently tipped me off about ChloroFilms, a competition for new videos illustrating remarkable aspects of plant life. Entrants create a relevant video, post it on YouTube, and complete an entry form on the ChloroFilms website. Videos on energy and the environment are particularly encouraged and thousdand of dollars are awarded in prizes every year!

But the best part is that all the winning entries are available on YouTube, making a great teaching resource, or just good entertainment:

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Inspiring the Next Generation of Plant Science Researchers

Inspiring the Next Generation of Plant Science Researchers
“We provide evidence from a 5-year study to show that a single concerted effort at the start of undergraduate study can have a clear and lasting effect on the attitudes of students toward plant science. Attendance at a week-long residential plant science summer school in the first year of an undergraduate degree resulted in many students changing courses to include more plant science and increased numbers of graduates selecting plant-based PhDs. The evidence shows that the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School has increased the pool of high-quality plant science related PhD applicants in the UK and has had a positive impact on students’ career aspirations. The results are discussed within the context of enhancing the pipeline of future plant scientists and reversing the decline of this vulnerable and strategically important subject relevant to addressing food security and other major global challenges. We have shown that a single well-designed and timely intervention can influence future student behavior and as such offers a framework of potential use.”

Inspiring the Next Generation of Plant Science Researchers. The Plant Cell, April 2012

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