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Q&A with course educators

Question and answer session with course educators about inspiring students with plant science
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ALEX JENKIN: Welcome to our Q&A session for this course, teaching biology– inspiring students with plants in science. Thank you for joining us on the course. We’ve got a couple of questions in this time around. We’ve got some questions about ecology and plant disease and also about field trips as well. So Bev and I will offer our responses on those. So our first question, which came from Harry, was, how would you suggest improving student engagement with ecology topics? And he said, especially considering that, whilst we’re in lockdown in the UK, and while there’s no practical work that can take place.
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I’m going to start off by answering this one, Harry, saying that there are online resources on the SAPS website where you can do ecology activities online. These were developed to support teachers who are then going to go on and do fieldwork. So to help develop the techniques, to understand the sampling techniques that students would be using, for students to get to grips with those before going out into the field, and using those in a real world example. So those are available on the SAPS website. They can be found by searching ecology on the website, but also they’re linked out from our distance learning resources. So there’s a page on there with distance learning resource.
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And they’re really about helping students to prepare for fieldwork. There’s also a resource which is on the Linnean Society website, which is ecology using sugar sprinkles. So using hundreds and thousands to model ecological sampling. Is there anything you might want to add on that, Bev?
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BEVERLEY GOODGER: Well, yes. I can understand it can be difficult to let your pupils see why quadrats matter. And I always think a really good way of starting that off is to put it into an engaging context. So for example, if you show them a clip from a wildlife documentary, like rain forest destruction or something like that, and they’re talking about the numbers of plants that there were and the numbers of plants that have gone. And you can then say, well, how do they know how many plants there were, and how do they know how many plants have gone? And from there, you can lead into the idea of surveying.
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And you could perhaps find some resources about satellite imaging, and perhaps there’s some really good film clips out there, of ecologists getting themselves up trees to look at the canopy. And you can say, well obviously, we can’t use satellites or climb trees, but we can actually use the tools which those facilities have developed from, and we can look at our local environment. So you can use that to grab them, or at least grab their attention. I think the other thing as well is that with lockdown, it’s hard, but perhaps if you can make a homemade quadrat, perhaps you could go into your garden and learn some of the techniques of sampling and surveying.
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But why not make your own little documentary? Why not make a video diary or a magazine about your particular patch and how it’s changed and why it’s mattered? And the last point, the last one, is I always found football pitches to be incredibly useful, and especially at one of the schools I taught at. The football pitch was built on rubble and was full of weeds, and there was a big discussion within the school about whether they should relay it because there wasn’t really any grass, it was weeds. And the surveying that sixth form did was actually fed into those meetings about how they should manage the site. So that’s directly relevant.
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So context, relevance, and maybe 15 minutes of fame might be ways to hook your students into this topic.
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ALEX JENKIN: Thanks, Bev. Thanks very much. I was just thinking actually again, if you’ve got students who don’t have outdoor space and it’s not possible for them to get to other places at the moment, the techniques still apply. You can still sample a living room. And what is found, those techniques can still be done in different– whether that’s on the online resources, in a, what I mentioned, or outside, or inside in a different type of space. And I think I really like what you said, Bev, about those contexts. Why is it important that we know how to do this? I think that’s really interesting. Thanks very much.
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So our second question, which also came from Harry, I think, was about how to link plant disease in better and how to teach plant disease, again, in an engaging way. It does sometimes get tacked on to human and animal and other animal disease, which, of course, students can find much easier to engage with because they feel it’s more relevant to them. I’ll jump in again to start answering this question, again to promote some more SAPS resources. We do have a collection of plant disease resources, and some of them use– and we’ve tried where possible to use examples that students can find themselves.
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So one of the slightly frustrating things about some of the diseases specified on the exam boards in the UK is they’re not things that are necessarily very easy to find. So tobacco mosaic virus, for example, is very interesting in terms of its use in plant science and genetic modification. It’s an interesting virus, but your students are unlikely to see it growing somewhere that they’re going to see it actually in real life, for want of a better term. So we’ve got some resources that do use those curriculum examples and those specification examples, but also touch on examples that students can see for themselves.
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So one of those, it’s a really good example, is violet bramble rust, which grows on the underside of bramble leaves. And that can be found at any time of the year. It looks different at different times of the year, but it can be found pretty much anywhere that brambles are growing. So that could be in a city environment or in the countryside. And when in the lab, you can very easily use a piece of sellotape to pick some of the fungus that grows on the underside of those leaves, and you can stick the sellotape onto a slide and you can see the fungus. And students can have a look at a real example of a plant disease.
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Obviously, that was tricky whilst most our students are not in school. The other one is rose black spot as well, which is quite often found on rose plants wherever they’re grown. Usually not so much on older varieties of roses. It tends to be on newer varieties of roses. But yeah, there’s really examples that students can see, actual examples of plant disease. I think there’s tar spot on sycamore as well as in there. So although they’re not the examples that are on the specifications, students can actually have a real look at some plant disease. And those are some things that they could see in the local environment around them.
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And then I guess I had just been thinking on what Bev was saying as well. We’re talking about the contexts. We do also have, before I give a great list of contexts, there is a resource we produced for the International Year of Plant Health, which was 2020. Rather overshadowed, perhaps, but it has a whole set of contexts for plant disease. So it’s worth looking for that on the SAPS website as well. Bev, over to you.
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BEVERLEY GOODGER: I’ve got a lot more to add, except to say that perhaps if you’ve just spent quite a lot of time thinking about human health and disease, then a logical step would be to talk about the impact of plant disease on human health. And I’m sure you do this already, talking about, for example, historic examples, the potato blight and how that led to widespread famine, and what the impact of that on whole societies globally it led to impact. On the resource that Alex was talking about, for the International Year of Plant Health, and there’s a whole lot of PowerPoints.
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It’s the bottom one and it’s about bananas, on breeding resistance or trying to acquire resistance to the particular fungi that can affect the clones of bananas, like the Cavendish banana. And in certain parts of the world, where bananas are a staple crop, people whose diets depend on them face starvation if these particular fungi, these particular rusts, attack their leaves. So just making that connection between the diseases that humans have and how starvation can make people more susceptible to disease, and how a failing crop can actually lead to widespread starvation. So that was just my thought.
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ALEX JENKIN: Thanks very much, Bev. And yeah, just another thought I had while you were saying that is, again, I’m sure this is something that you’re already doing, but thinking about the ways in which plants deal with disease that are different to the ways that the animals deal with disease. And there are some various interesting and amazing strategies that the plants have that are worth looking into.
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So our final question comes to us all the way from Australia. From Eloise, and they asked, when it comes to identifying plants for biology field trips in Australia, do we have any helpful tips or suggestions? So thank you very much for your question, Eloise. Unfortunately, we are UK-based organisation, so we don’t have any specific tips about Australian plants. I’m going to hand over to Bev in a moment to discuss a bit of her experience in leading field trips and taking students on field trips.
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You may well already have looked, but we would suggest going to the CSIRO website. They’ve got various education resources on there. So that’s probably the best place to start. I’m sorry we don’t have any better specific options for you there, but we’re a UK-based organisation and it’s, unfortunately, not our area of expertise. But Bev, you’ve got a few tips on leading field trips that I think would be very useful to share.
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BEVERLEY GOODGER: Thanks, Alex. Yes, well really, just to say that if you’re going to run a field trip in a particular area, I’ve always found it useful to make contact with and, if possible, work with the people in that area who have local knowledge. So if you’re going to a nature reserve, it might be the ranger of that reserve or if it’s not that big a reserve, it might be somebody who plays a part in managing the wildlife on that area. Because their understanding and knowledge of what’s living there will help you and your students to not only recognise these plants, but also remember what they are and how they’re living together in groups.
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So that’s always been my approach, really, to find out who’s managing the site, which you’d probably need to do anyway, and to try to enlist their support, actually on your field trip itself, or in advance so that when you do your walk over the site for your risk assessments, they’re with you, and you’re risk assessing and also looking out for what’s living there. And any kind of educational fieldwork organisation is good. In the UK, we have the Field Studies Council, which you will have an equivalent.
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And Field Studies Council produce excellent, very clear resources, which help with identification of common plants that you’ll find in particular environments, be it a saltmarsh right down to what you might find growing in your lawn. So an equivalent organisation to that might be a good one to go and find their website. So there are my hints. As I say, I’m sorry, I’ve never done fieldwork in Australia. But I think it doesn’t matter where you are. I think wherever you are, working with people with local knowledge is going to help you.
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Thanks, Alex.
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ALEX JENKIN: Thanks, Bev. Yeah, and just to add to that, and leads really nicely from what Bev said about local knowledge is that there may well be opportunities to involve Indigenous groups in that local knowledge, knowledge that is held by those people as well that you could work together with different people on that. So I think that brings us to the end of the Q&A. I don’t know if there was anything else that we wanted to bring up this time around. You’re always welcome to get in touch with us at SAPS. You can find our contact details on our website. You can sign up to receive our newsletter there, and you can always get in touch with us.
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We’re not in the office at the moment, but the email address is still working. So if you need help troubleshooting practicals, or you’ve got a plant science question, then we’ve got a panel of experts we can ask as well. So you’re always welcome to do that, and thank you very much for joining us on the course. I hope you found it useful. It’s always interesting to read everyone’s comments and to learn from you, as well as to guide you through the course. So thanks very much.

All online CPD courses from STEM Learning provide an opportunity to ask the educators more detailed questions as part of the course Q&A session.

The course educators will record responses to your outstanding questions from your reflection grids and course discussions. If there are ideas from the course you wish to explore further or issues about your own teaching context, then the Q&A provides a final opportunity to explore these with expert insight.

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Teaching Biology: Inspiring Students with Plant Science

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