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Cultivating Plant Scientists

AIBS Eye on Education

Susan Musante

At the 2003 annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America (BSA), keynote speaker Bruce Alberts offered members an educational challenge: Bridge the connections between scientists and science classrooms, and develop inquiry-based programs that encourage hands-on student participation in science. BSA scientists responded to the challenge. Together with middle and high school teachers, and with guidance from Barbara Schulz of the National Research Council, they developed and tested an interactive Web-based mentoring program to support student research projects.

Three years later, the pilot testing is complete and the new program, now called Planting Science (http://plantingscience.org), is open to any interested middle school, high school, or college class with a connection to the Internet and a teacher committed to facilitating student-led inquiry investigations on plants.

Once a class is registered for the program, the students form teams, are assigned a science mentor, and are given access to the Planting Science online learning community. The mentors communicate with the teams through an online forum, asking questions and offering feedback to help the team refine its research question and hypothesis and develop an experimental design. Team members are required to keep a research journal, recording observations and posting their entries online. Throughout the process, they continue to communicate with their mentor, and they can also interact with teams from other schools, offering suggestions and feedback to their peers.

One of the scientist mentors is Marshall Sundberg, a BSA officer and plant anatomist and morphologist at Emporia State University in Kansas. He enjoys mentoring students who have not yet declared a major in science because, he says, “They don’t have preconceptions about what is expected and are very inventive.” Sundberg observes that these students can be very good peer reviewers, once they overcome their initial reservations. “The hard part is encouraging them to open up and share their observations,” he adds.

Valdine McLean, a science teacher at Pershing County High School in Lovelock, Nevada, has had over 20 student teams participate in the program. The teams based their research projects on “The Wonder of Seeds,” one of the inquiry topics available through the program. “My students are excited to be in class, willing to participate, more cooperative, and having fun,” says McLean. She attributes their enthusiasm to the hands-on inquiry project and the interactions with the science mentors. “They get to see that scientists are real people, and some have started to think about science as a career, too,” she adds.

McLean says one of her biggest challenges was how best to incorporate the program into an already busy school year. “Implementation of the program,” she notes, “does take a good bit of time, but BSA is very flexible in its requirements.” To assist teachers, BSA provides resources to prepare students for their involvement in the project. These include suggestions for sequencing, primary activities to generate ideas, background information about inquiry, and tips on how to prepare a research journal.

BSA does not demand that teachers follow a particular course of action. “As long as they are encouraging their students to perform experiments on the general research topic,” says Claire Hemingway, BSA’s education director, “anything goes, because we want students to generate their own research questions.” This open-ended inquiry is the key to facilitating authentic student research.

An integral part of the overall goal of Planting Science is to spread the word that anyone can do science. For those teachers who never had the opportunity to conduct independent research, participation in the program allows them to learn with their students. “There was so much that I realized that I wasn’t doing and could do to help students learn the nature of science,” says McLean.

While the experiments the students choose to conduct are not always novel, it is the synergy of the inquiry-based science, student research, and online mentoring that makes Planting Science so powerful. “Being able to talk with a scientist or another student across the country, and get to explain what happened, that is where much of the higher-level learning takes place,” says Hemingway.

The program’s success is linked to the fact that BSA continuously makes improvements in response to feedback from participants. “BSA is very receptive to suggestions,” says Sundberg, who serves on the Planting Science advisory committee. Among the innovations planned for this fall are a new research module, “The Power of Sunlight”; mentor workshops on communication and encouraging scientific habits of mind; and collaboration with other plant organizations, including the American Society of Plant Biologists, American Society of Plant Taxonomists, American Fern Society, and American Bryological and Lichenological Society.

The Botanical Society of America wants to share the model it has developed, as well as the software to support it, with other disciplinary societies. “Planting Science is not a program designed to improve the profile of BSA,” says Hemingway. “The goal is to improve science literacy and help others committed to reaching this goal.”

Susan Musante (e-mail: )) is AIBS's education and outreach program manager.

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