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Dr M Goes Wild about plants at the Association of Science Education 2015

What’s the botanical buzz of 2015? Well, Dr M is taking eXtreme botany and #iamabotanist to the Annual Conference of the Association of Science Education (ASE) at University of Reading 7-10 January 2015.

When Dr M was a lad you could actually take an A-level in botany, nowadays botany, usually now called plant science, appears to be dwindling in the National Curriculum and especially at the secondary level.


Fortunately we have botanical  champions such as SAPS – Science and Plants for Schools – based in Cambridge who offer fantastic resources and assistance for teachers teaching about plants in the new science and biology curricula.


As far as the Primary School resources and curriculum goes the situation seems quite encouraging. Give appropriate stimulation from teachers, young children seem to have the capacity and opportunity to engage with plants and with plant-related activities such as:

Parts of a plant and their functions
Reproduction and life Cycles 1: parts of a flower
Reproduction and life Cycles 2: pollination, fertilisation
Living processes, and what plants need to grow
Grouping and classification
Plants in their natural environment

But when it comes to the Secondary curriculum it is far from plain sailing. Competing requirements and demands have squeezed plants out of many areas, and even in generic areas where plant examples could be used, e.g. protein synthesis and meiosis, animals lead the way!

Being an ardent botanist, Dr M is only too aware that many secondary (and university) students, and teachers too, are bored by plants and by botany, so why is that?

  • One line of reasoning is that the curriculum has dumbed plants down just to the boring bits.
  • Another is that it is hard to fight against the inherent disinterest most people have in plants – all the excitement lies with the animals that are cute and furry and run and jump and sing!

How can plants compete with this?  Well, you know what? They can’t, and one result is a global pandemic of what has been termed “plant blindness” – the inability to see, notice and appreciate the plants in one’s own locality and environment.

Dr M finds all of this a crying shame and he can confirm that, contrary to popular belief, Plants are cool too!


Not convinced? well check out botany Prof Chris Martine’s series of videos “Plants are cool too” with their fun sound track song “Could an animal help get you a girl?” (btw the answer is No!)

Dr M wonders: Maybe songs and video are a good way to conquer plant blindness?

A while ago Dr M produced the now infamous “Poaceae song” all about a family of grasses green and wonderful, and more recently “The 12 days of botany” a botanical take on the popular Christmas song.

All rather light-hearted and superficial maybe, but there’s serious learning going on when your students compose songs about plants and make videos. There are plenty of examples on YouTube, check out the Fern song by students from Wisconsin, the worst that can happen is your students will have a lot of fun!

Dr M has a recurring dream in which he finds himself somewhere, anywhere in Britain and wandering into a nearby secondary school he goes into a classroom filled with keen and eager students and the teacher at the front of the class is animated saying:  “Awesome! We’ll be looking at Darwin’s phototropism experiments for a couple of lessons – take a look at this kids!”

tropism experiment

So, Dr M is on a mission at ASE 2015 to ask: “How can we create a “culture” of being excited about botany?”  and “Could secondary teachers lead this botanical revolution?” and, if so, “What help do they need?”

This change of culture needs two main things:

  1. Teachers who are motivated, enthused and joyful about plants, and
  2. A curriculum brimming with the fascination, excitement and pure awesomeness of plants and their importance for a sustainable biosphere.

saps at ASE

SAPS and other initiatives such as Gatsby Plants are doing sterling work providing resources and helping teachers to enthuse about plants with their students.

Learning about plant diversity is key to understanding and appreciating the awesomeness and value of global plant diversity and plants lend themselves to being used in demonstrations and practical classes.  Dr M will be bringing some plants  from the University of Reading glasshouses to the SAPS ASE stand (BS13) to demonstrate curriculum topics such as:

Biodiversity, adaptations and evolution through natural selection and speciation – carnivorous plants, cacti & succulents (parallel evolution) and bromeliads (also demonstrates nutrient cycling).

Principles of taxonomy – cacti & succulents to explain why superficially similar things are classified very differently (succulents occur in diverse families including Cactaceae, Crassulaceae and Euphorbiaceae for example).

Uses of plant products – the list is near endless but includes cotton and hemp for clothing; indigo (Indigofera tinctoria in the Pea family, Fabaceae) for dyeing blue jeans; Willow trees, Salix spp. for Aspirin; tropical crops such as chocolate and coffee; and the mega-important and wondrous grass family – Poaceae – yielding the global staple food crops millet, rice, sorghum, tef, wheat.

Plant defences, herbivory, adaptation – the plant defense arsenal includes fearsome weapons like spines, thorns and prickles (do you know the difference between these three?) and chemical defences like the stinging hairs of Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica and even more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction, toxic chemical defences such as the copious latex of Spurges, Euphorbia, then there are the booby traps like the Venus Fly Trap, Dionaea muscipula, the water filled Pitcher-plants, Nepenthes and Sarracenia and the sticky glandular hairs of Sundews, Drosera.

Plant defence from herbivory is not just about an armoury of physical or chemical adaptations, plant growth form can be a key adaptation and the number one plant defence is the basal meristem of grasses which allows grasses to grow back after damage so lawn grasses can be repeatedly grazed, mown, trodden on and generally treated roughly yet still keeps growing!

Dr M is also keen to show how plants can contribute to general biological and scientific enquiry. In the words of David Attenborough, “learning to look” is a key prerequisite and by looking smartly at plants s can soon get students to recognise the top ten families of flowering plants based on recurring characters such as flower and inflorescence structure, leaf arrangement and other vegetative characters – relevant to the taxonomy element of the curriculum. These skills of keen-eyed observation, classification and sorting as well as problem-solving (which family does plant x belong to and why?) are not unique to botany but important  general skills for scientists are any persuasion.

In the era of the internet and social media the ways of communicating the love and joy of plants are more diverse than ever and are increasing all the time, examples include:

Web blogs and web resources and social media to communicate the love and joy of plants – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc etc, the cyber-ether is the limit!

Web resources for example SAPS Plants in your lab highlights some of the common and easily grown plants that teachers can use to demonstrate biological concepts in the curriculum:

  • Aspidistra, Aspidistra elator – Photosynthetic pigments, Chromatography
  • Canadian Pondweed, Elodea Canadensis – Photosynthesis,
  • Beetroot, Beta vulgaris – Cell structure, Plasmolysis, Membrane permeability,
  • Onion and garlic, Allium spp. – Cell structure, Stomata, DNA, Enzymes, Mitosis, Fertilisation and cell cycle.
  • Broad bean, Vicia faba – Nutrient cycles and Nitrogen fixation and Mutualism,
  • Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale and Daisy, Bellis perennis – Plant responses, Gravitropism, Measuring distribution, Sampling, Abundance.

Interactive web sites such as i-Spot now offer whole communities of scientists and lay-people the opportunity to engage and help each other in the identification of anything in nature. People register and sign up and can then upload their observations of plants and wildlife and help each other identify it, and share and discuss what they’ve seen.

Botanical and plant science blogs where individuals can communicate their own particular brand of botanical enthusiasm. There is nothing quite like iflscience for botany – yet – but individual bloggers can and do communicate their botanical passions to anyone prepared to access and read!

University of Reading publishes a large number of blogs including Whiteknights Biodiversity which documents with plant and animal and fungal biodiversity on the award-winning green Whiteknights campus and includes blog posts written by both staff and students.

Tropical Biodiversity is a blog dealing with matters tropical from the University of Reading tropical glasshouse and beyond and each year includes a set of blogs written by MSc students as part of their MSc Plant Diversity.

Another is Dr M’s own drmgoeswild.com born in March 2013 and built around the concept of eXtreme botany, you can access the video which started it all off here, though it won’t tell you canything about the concept (it won’t tell you anything in fact, but Dr M is fond of it!), you can find his eXtreme Botany manifesto here!

drm at ase 2015

drmgoeswild.com is a special botanical site which feeds into Dr M’s teaching at University of Reading, but it has an increasing attachment to botanical narratives and using video as means of communicating about plants to a wider audience. There are also some resources relevant to the school curriculum, e.g. Dr M’s posts on the top 20 British plant families – relevant to the principles of taxonomy curriculum area. Dr M would be delighted to hear from teachers about resources he could provide here that would help them in their teaching (email him at j.mitchley@reading.ac.uk).

Social media can increasingly be seen nurturing the next generation of botanists as they communicate with the botanical community on the Twittersphere and on Facebook about plants they have discovered and want to identify and appreciate. Some of Dr M’s own students have recently formed @BadassBotanists, new botanists on the block now active on Twitter and who may yet develop into an important force for generating and maintaining interest in plants amongst young people.

badass botanists

So, these are issues that Dr M will be talking to teachers about and hoping to stimulate and provoke reactions and discussion in his quest for a culture of excitement about plants and about the science of botany!

Watch this space for the tangible outcomes… we need those!


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