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Dr M (and Grasshead) champions botanical creativity in science education

Dr M and Poaceae 1

Dr M attended the three day Association of Science Education (ASE), at the University of Reading, and he joined the SAPS stand – Science and Plants for Schools – to talk to educators about how to get teachers and students excited about plants and “generate a culture of excitement about plants!”

Dr M took along with him some plants and other resources including a coat stand hanging with the cactus Rhipsalis and festooned with Spanish moss to demonstrate inter alia, the evolution of plant diversity, adaptation and defences against herbivory, taxonomy and identification of the top ten common UK plant families and, of course, the beauty and pure awesomeness of his beloved Poaceae - a family of grasses green and wonderful!

The new president of ASE is Sir David Bell, Vice Chancellor of University of Reading and in his keynote speech to the conference entitled “Trusting the front line” he quoted the words of Mae Jemison, who in 1992 became the first female, African-American astronaut in space.

She said (way back in 2002 in fact!): “The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin… or even different parts of the same continuum. Rather, they are manifestations of the same thing… They spring from the same source. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

Dr M, who has always championed arts and sciences as an inextricable entity with creativity at the heart, finds this a fitting summary of his three days at ASE 2015.

Much has been written and said about the diminution and loss of plants in the curriculum and the blindness of people to plants (after all, plants are boring aren’t they?!), but It is creativity above-all which will sustain, nurture and develop botany in the curriculum and in schools, colleges and universities as we inspire the next generations of botanists.

Dr M was inspired by the teachers he spoke with who were to a woman and man receptive to the love and joy of plants in the curriculum. OK they had stopped off at a stand labelled “Science and Plants for Schools” and so perhaps a self-selecting group!

But there was clear enthusiasm and demand for ways of adding excitement and variety to plants and botany in the curriculum. And, most importantly, to be creative in the use of plants, not just in those specifically planty areas like photosynthesis, plant cells and water transport, the uses of plants etc, but in more generic areas of the curriculum where plant examples could be used just as readily as animals, e.g. biodiversity, adaptations and natural selection and principles of taxonomy. There are also other even more creative roles for plants across-curricula, for example in physics testing the strength of materials and in chemistry with the multitude of plant chemical defences.

The SAPS website offers a treasure trove of exciting free resources especially for secondary teachers and as ASE 2015 SAPS held daily  drop-in lab sessions with demonstrations for teachers and technicians how to run plant practicals that work. It was here that Dr M discovered his very own algal jelly balls, learned how to conga with Cabomba (Dr M came, he saw, he Cabomba’d) and tested the impressive tensile strength of carrot (carrot sticks and hummus hors d’oeuvres will never be quite the same again!).

The Field Studies Council was at ASE with their outdoor classroom and Dr M also visited the Gatekeeper stand run by Lynette Merrick who provides practical and inspiring resources for outdoor learning, including plant ID cards of which one featuring common grasses (beloved Poaceae!) caught Dr M’s eye especially.

Dr M is struck by the new primary curriculum which seems to offer more of Dr M’s style of field botany teaching, learning and enquiry than is available at secondary level. There are significant opportunities for engaging primary children with plants both in the classroom and outside. The topics on classification and on identifying plants in the local environment all resonate with Dr Ms own field botany approaches.

Not all primary teachers will be comfortable identifying local plants and a key message from those Dr M talked to was the need for resources to help teachers and children not only to ID local plants but also to put them in context, e.g. through mini-narratives which explore thing like where the plant name comes from, where and how the plant grows, its relations with other plants and animals and how it might have been used by people through history – as food, dyes, medicine etc.

Dr M oats

ASE 2015 was an international conference and Dr M met teachers from as far afield as India and Bangladesh, Australia and Norway, Newcastle and North London! One Norwegian teacher spotted the box of Avena sativa (Oats) on the stand and gave an impromptu rendition of a delightful Norwegian folk song to Dr M “Jeg en harven” (“I am the oat”) all about the oat plant and it’s little bells (nodding spikelets!).

Dr M says: stories and song really are central to creative teaching and learning botany! So how better to end this post than with Dr M’s very own contribution to the genre, the infamous Poaceae song? So, here it is, in a special rendition at the SAPS stand given to a select but highly appreciative audience, for which many thanks to SAPS, Society for Biology and of course to ASE!

 

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