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Science: Brings Students to Plant Biologists

Fuels made from plants, such as algae or wood pulp, may be among important solutions to energy and climate change challenges as we proceed further into the 21st century. However, despite that fact and other potential benefits offered by plants, our photosynthetic friends often get overlooked in school in favor of animals, according to studies of science classrooms.

To help remedy this plant discrimination—as well as a similar human tendency known as “plant blindness,” which ignores plants’ presence in the environment—a botanical Web site is teaming students with online plant scientists to do real scientific inquiry.

“ is radically different in that it’s introducing scientists to students,” says Claire Hemingway, one of three co-principal investigators on the Web site. “And the entire science experience—of taking an investigation to completion, including presenting data—is there.”

Because of the Web site’s effectiveness at bringing the actual scientific process to students via an online collaboration with plant biologists, the journal Science has chosen to receive a Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, or SPORE, award.

“PlantingScience leverages the Internet in order to make professional scientists accessible to secondary school classrooms,” says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. “Students, with the help of their mentors and teachers, are able to experience science directly by designing experiments and conducting plant investigations in their classrooms. Teachers are able to confer about ideas and bring inquiry into their classrooms through discussions with the scientific mentors.”


Scientists, students, and teachers engage in the enterprise of science. The platform supports a collaborative science experience and provides resources on inquiry, mentoring, and investigating major themes in plant biology.
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Science developed the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to promote the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less-than-ideal conditions, into something new. In the same way, these winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article by each recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about PlantingScience was published on 25 March.

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

Hemingway, who helped create the first version of PlantingScience and has a Ph.D in biological anthropology and anatomy, only came to plant science after doing research on leaf-eating lemurs in Madagascar.

Observing about 1500 trees to learn exactly what the lemurs were eating, Hemingway became intrigued by the trees themselves, which unlike the lemurs stayed in one place. “I liked the guaranteed data,” she says. “I really loved the plant work.”

Later, when Hemingway was hired by the Botanical Society of America (BSA), that organization happened to be considering how to respond to a challenge put forth by Alberts, then the president of the National Academy of Sciences. Alberts had asked the BSA to help enhance science classroom experiences. Although Hemingway was hired as the managing editor of the BSA’s journal, the American Journal of Botany, she was as interested in education as she was in science publishing, she says. Hemingway adds that her own early education about plants had been typical, beginning with the conceptually difficult subject of photosynthesis and extensive vocabulary.

“The typical experience that young students get is not the, ‘Gee whiz, this is really fascinating,’” she says. “That experience doesn’t leave an open door to the study of plants for many people.”

Wanting to improve upon that method, Hemingway and co-principal investigator William Dahl put together a precursor Web page to PlantingScience, drawing on input from teachers across the country, teacher leaders with the National Research Council, and Acme Animation, a Los Angeles animation company that had been arranging for students to work with professional mentors in the field of animation.



Watch Claire Hemingway talk about her award with AAAS’s Natasha Pinol.

“Acme had a nice working model of linking professionals with students,” Hemingway says. “The idea was to take this model and have it applied to classrooms and student groups communicating with professional scientists.”

After experimenting with the pilot project, BSA hired a Web programmer, Rob Brandt, to build the platform for PlantingScience, taking into account an analysis by co-principal investigator Carol Stuessy of the dialogue that had occurred between scientists and students in the pilot. From that point on, the Web site organizers recruited online mentors of all ages, including graduate students, who often built “an easy rapport quite quickly” with the younger learners. Other organizations, such as the American Society of Plant Biologists, also joined the effort.

The organizers decided to offer a team approach to the science projects undertaken through the Web site. Hemingway says such an approach best resembles the way real science is done, offering practice with everything from idea generation at the beginning of an investigation to peer evaluation, which resembles the real science world’s peer-review process.

So far, 9000 middle- and high-school students, 2500 research teams, and teachers in 34 states have experienced a brand of scientific inquiry offered through the Web site that is not the repetitive lab exercises with predicted outcomes of many textbooks, but the real world of ambiguity, messy data, and scientific creativity. Between August 2005 and November 2010, the site welcomed 1.6 million visitors.

Obviously, such usage of the site will cut down on “plant blindness,” and the SPORE award should multiply the site’s effect. For one thing, Hemingway says, Science readers from the 14 plant-related organizations involved in the site will see the corresponding article.

“The article will validate their commitment to PlantingScience,” says Hemingway. “Knowing it’s respected at that level might encourage them to find ways to increase their participation.”


Visit winner of this month’s SPORE award from the journal Science.

Read the essay, “Building Botanical Literacy,” by Claire Hemingway et al.

Watch Claire Hemingway talk about her award with AAAS’s Natasha Pinol