Tag 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.


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.


A new website introducing genetic engineering

The Journey of a Gene is a new website at UNL-Nebraska that teaches the basics of genetic engineering. There’s a combination of videos, some from YouTube and some specifically made as well as some interactive sections.

The video above, explaining what a gene is, is an example of what they’re bringing in. Later they explain the role of promoters and coding and you get elements like the video below explaining how to use the interactive elements.

I tend to be wary of websites a teaching tools by themselves. There are very few good ones. However, I don’t know if they have some sort of special unit at UNL, but this is the second time I’ve found useful interactive animations produced there. They also do some handy astronomy tools. As one of AoB Blog’s non-botanists, I found the videos genuinely helpful in explaining some of the genetic engineering process.

It’s hard to say why some sites work and some don’t. If it was easy to spot why something was rubbish, then it’d be easy to fix. In this case, I think building it around one specific problem, Soybean Sudden Death Syndrome, means that you have an idea of what the context is. It’s not just random information; there’s actually a point to it. That kind of narrative structure means that the sections follow on from each other in a sensible way.

If you’re a new student and want a little extra help getting your head around what a gene is, and how DNA inheritance works when you start crossing and backcrossing plants, then you should definitely give the site a go. I can’t guarantee you’ll be genetic engineering your own plants by the end of the course, but you might at least have a better understanding of how it happens.

A tip o’ the hat to Agriview for pointing me at this.

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.


Teaching kids about plants

Cattleya walkeriana When teaching about plants, science educators struggle with several problems in science or botany courses. Learning about plants is perceived to be less interesting than learning about animals, photographs of plants in textbooks are less numerous and less diverse than photographs of animals and attitudes toward plants are neutral rather than positive. Students also have serious misconceptions about the physiology of plants, and their abilities to name plants are limited. There is evidence that females have better knowledge about plants than males and that females appreciate plants more than males. A recent paper looks at the best way of teaching students about plants.

The study has several implications that should be taken into consideration in botany lessons. First, visual, colourful presentations of plants should include exposure of their fruits or seeds that promote information retention. In particular, contrasting colours of fruits may increase student’s attention, interest and consequently information retention about these plants. Second, talking about plants should contain survival-relevant information. This information includes plant edibility, the presence of toxic substances, medical importance of plants and incidences that can cause human death. For example, the hemlock (Conium maculatum) lacks any attractive seeds or other features potentially attractive to children, but the story of Socrates who was given a potent infusion of the hemlock and died can positively influence retention of information about this species. Finally, there was some evidence that the children involved in the research associated red colour with a fruit being edible, and black or green colours with toxic fruits, although this was not conclusive. Teachers should teach children that plants, similar to animals, possess aposematic, warning colours, and unknown fruits (with contrasting colour) should not be consumed.



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.


What a Plant Knows – free online course

What a Plant Knows It’s a week until the free What a Plant Knows (and other things you didn’t know about plants) course begins. If you’re interested in an enjoyable online learning experience about plants, I’d recommend giving it a try.


About the Course:
For centuries we have collectively marveled at plant diversity and form – from Charles Darwin’s early fascination with stems and flowers to Seymour Krelborn’s distorted doting in Little Shop of Horrors. This course intends to present an intriguing and scientifically valid look at how plants themselves experience the world – from the colors they see to the sensations they feel. Highlighting the latest research in genetics and more, we will delve into the inner lives of plants and draw parallels with the human senses to reveal that we have much more in common with sunflowers and oak trees than we may realize. We’ll learn how plants know up from down, how they know when a neighbor has been infested by a group of hungry beetles, and whether they appreciate the music you’ve been playing for them or if they’re just deaf to the sounds around them. We’ll explore definitions of memory and consciousness as they relate to plants in asking whether we can say that plants might even be aware of their surroundings. This highly interdisciplinary course meshes historical studies with cutting edge modern research and will be relevant to all humans who seek their place in nature. This class has three main goals:

  1. To introduce you to basic plant biology by exploring plant senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, balance).
  2. To introduce you to biological research and the scientific method.
  3. To get the student to question life in general and what defines us as humans.

If it’s as good as his book with the same name, it should be a good course.

Science and Plants for Schools – Biology practical demo – How do nettles sting?

This demo from Science and Plants for Schools demonstrates a quick and easy plant practical for biology labs. Using Universal Indicator paper, students investigate the pH of nettle stings. This can easily be built up into a broader investigation, or used as a quick practical to introduce the topics of plant defences, adaptations and specialised cells.

Download the full student sheet and teacher’s and technical notes free from the SAPS website:


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.



Focus on transfer cells

Image: Kelvin Song/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Kelvin Song/Wikimedia Commons.

I love transfer cells. They are plant cells (which is great), but with a difference; they are ‘specialized parenchyma cells that have an increased surface area, due to infoldings of the plasma membrane. They facilitate the transport of sugars from a sugar source, mainly leaves, to a sugar sink, often developing fruits. They are found in nectaries of flowers and some carnivorous plants’. Those plasma membrane infoldings are the result of cell wall ingrowths and transfer cells (TCs) appear to have been present in angiosperms for over 50 million years.

The term ‘transfer cell’ was coined in recognition of proposed general functions in transferring solutes between interconnected protoplasts (symplast) and non-living spaces (apoplast) in or surrounding the plant. TCs are found in many widely dispersed plant types and their importance probably lies in their role in nutrient distribution, as they facilitate high rates of transport at sites that might otherwise present ‘bottlenecks’ for apo-/symplasmic solute exchange; e.g. crop yield in many species may ultimately depend as much upon proper functioning of internal TCs as it does on externally applied fertiliser(!). So, the more that is known about development, etc, of TCs the better for all of us. Well, good news then that Kiruba Chinnappa et al. have developed phloem parenchyma TCs in Arabidopsis as an experimental system to identify transcriptional regulators of wall ingrowth formation. Exploiting this system, they’ve so far identified ‘master switches’ that respond to various inductive signals to co-ordinate wall ingrowth deposition in TCs. Ultimately, the hope is that manipulation of this process may provide new opportunities for improving crop yield. I’m sure we can all wish them well in that noble endeavour.

[Ed. – And, if your appetite for TCs has now been whetted, these curious cells will feature in a future Research Topic in Frontiers of Plant Physiology to be edited by David McCurdy and Gregorio Hueros. But, if you can’t wait until then, Felicity Andriunas et al.’s article “Intersection of transfer cells with phloem biology—broad evolutionary trends, function, and induction” is available now…]