Undergrad Plant Biology Course Wins Science Magazine Prize

Freshmen taking a required plant biology course at New Jersey’s Rider University often become attached to the plants they grow for the class, even getting upset when they realize some of the seedlings must die so that their dry biomass can be measured. Throughout this process, the students go beyond common perceptions of plants as “green rocks” that are barely alive and not very interesting except to botanists intent on categorizing them. They get closer to realizing the importance of plants to food supply, atmospheric carbon balance, and even energy sources. They also experience the scientific process in a way that becomes very meaningful to them.

“Once they spend personal time with their plants,” said Laura Hyatt, a professor and dean at Rider who created the freshman course The Personal Plant Project, “they get very interested in what the plants are doing. The students get really connected to their plants.”

Because of its success at engaging students in the scientific process and in the world of plants, The Personal Plant Project has been selected to win the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about The Personal Plant Project was published on 28 September.

“Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science,” said Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts. “We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources.”

Hyatt grew up interested in science and plants, and with the encouragement of a fifth grade teacher, she began pursuing her own questions about the natural world, studying a pond at the end of her street. In seventh grade, she was enrolled in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, which has been a hotbed for the development of career scientists. By the middle of high school, Hyatt decided on science as a major, and when she got to Smith College, she found botany presented as an exciting experimental field, not the static system of classification with which it is often associated.

“Often the impression students get about botany is that it’s taxonomy,” Hyatt said, “and that’s not very exciting at all from an experimental perspective.”

When Hyatt began teaching undergraduate biology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was getting her Ph.D., she saw that students thought of plants as green rocks. Experimental botany, with its considerations about dirt and plants, was relegated to agriculture, which hardly entered into most students’ urban or suburban experience.

Luckily, Hyatt had convictions that motivated her to provide a course of study that would present botany as an important experimental science. Study in Belize had cemented her passion for ecology, so it was natural for her to present the experimental side of plant science. Another conviction came from a year she had spent, previous to earning her Ph.D. at Penn, at the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government.

That year helped Hyatt “to see science in a broader societal context,” she said, making it clear that students should learn that plants are crucial to a healthy planet and population. It also highlighted for her the fact that students, as citizens, should gain an understanding of the process of science.

With these objectives in mind, Hyatt crafted The Personal Plant Project, which begins by providing students with a general observation and a question related to plants. The students are then asked to design an experiment to investigate the question, planting seeds and applying various experimental treatments in Rider’s greenhouses.

“The course is intentionally low on terminology and higher-order understanding of a certain topic,” said Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. “This is in order for the true focus to be on the students’ designing and executing their own experiments.”

Hyatt, who is now the associate dean in Rider’s College of Liberal Arts, Education, and Sciences, emphasized that the general approach at Rider is to approach science education from “the experimental end of things, really having the students doing the science part of asking a question and figuring out how to get an answer,” rather than being handed an experiment where the steps, and the result, are predetermined.

“Some of the students are really scared about the open-endedness of the project, but there’s a lot of scaffolding I do,” Hyatt said. “Ultimately, this is so much more meaningful to them because they’ve designed it soup to nuts. Even something like measuring the rate of photosynthesis is different when you’ve grown the plant—rather than being handed one to measure.”

Throughout the course, especially when the students’ plants are starting to grow, students do activities related to their experiments, learning about such topics as water transpiration, manipulated photosynthesis rates, and the writing aspect of scientific papers.

By the end of the class, they are able to design an experiment completely on their own, explaining a plant pattern that they’ve witnessed during an outing on campus.

“Seven-eighths of them can do that in a way that they couldn’t have at the beginning of the course,” Hyatt said. “They’ve got more confidence about using the scientific process and are able to apply it.”

That ability to apply the scientific process transfers to other classes as well, a skill that Rider science faculty try to encourage by cross-referencing throughout the science curriculum, Hyatt said.

Hyatt said she would like for Rider to get recognition for teaching inquiry-based science to all of its students, part of a bigger science education effort at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Center for Science Teaching and Learning, which is located on Rider’s campus. She also hopes that her winning the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction and having an essay in Science magazine will help others “to begin teaching botany in an inquiry-based manner and try this on for size.”

Learn more about The Personal Plant Project.

Read the essay, “Personal Plants: Making Botany Meaningful by Experimentation,” by Laura A. Hyatt.

Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.