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Ecological illiteracy exists, in part, because students may be technologically advanced but often lack intellectual curiosity about their natural environment. Botanical illiteracy, often referred to as “plant blindness,” results from several interacting factors, including a lack of interest in plants and insufficient exposure to plant science before students reach college. We were interested in understanding how a hands-on activity planting native plant species translates across undergraduate majors in improving botanical literacy, as well as increasing awareness and concern about the loss of plant and pollinator biodiversity worldwide. We conducted a survey of both life-science majors and nonmajors to examine their attitudes toward native plants and pollinators. We also examined the change in attitudes of science majors following a hands-on native garden planting activity. We found that life-science majors generally had a stronger understanding and valuation of native plants and pollinators than nonmajors. We also found that life-science majors demonstrated an increase in their knowledge and valuation of native plants and pollinators after participation in the gardening activity. We suggest that this type of activity is important in alleviating plant blindness and in increasing ecological literacy, even among already knowledgeable science students.
Hands-on, inquiry-based laboratory activities are excellent opportunities to introduce first-year undergraduate students to the lab environment and to catalyze new interest in topics they may not yet know or be as enthusiastic about studying. We describe a multisession introductory laboratory activity that couples the research areas of medicinal drug discovery and plant biology. Selecting from a diversity of native California plants and broadly recognized medicinal plants, students learn and apply an assortment of basic phytochemical assays, analyze preliminary data, and then formulate hypothesis-driven follow-up experiments. Working in small groups, students develop shared project management and collaboration skills, and present activity results to peers in multiple modalities. Furthermore, we summarize findings from 163 student experiments using 29 plant species into an Instructor's Resource Table to facilitate guiding students through their preliminary and follow-up experiments. Lastly, we include student responses from pre- and post-activity surveys on their changing attitudes toward plant biology.
Can plants learn? This question stirs up controversy and speculation in the classroom, as it is currently doing in the scientific community at large. We leverage the controversy to ask students to contribute to the greater body of knowledge by using scientific principles in creative research projects. Ninth-grade honors biology students became familiar with original research and the surrounding controversy, and performed experiments testing two distinct forms of plant learning in Pisum sativum (pea) and Mimosa pudica (sensitive plant).
Reliable scientific conclusions are based on verifiable empirical evidence. But data must be transformed and interpreted before they become evidence, and statistical inference plays an important role in the process of interpretation. Biologists use statistics to organize and analyze data so that they can make inferences and use the data as evidence. Students should have opportunities to collect and analyze data in their biology classes as well. In this activity, students collect data on the surface areas of sun leaves and shade leaves, then analyze the data using the independent-samples t-test. The t-test procedure can be used in investigations where two groups are compared on one dependent variable.
Understanding the causes and consequences of variation among populations is fundamental for understanding the process of evolution via natural selection. To support students in noticing, questioning, and investigating variation in wild populations, we describe an introductory investigation that used digitized museum plant specimens as the primary focus. The activity illustrates how digitized museum collections can be used to introduce natural phenomena into the classroom, even without physical access to a museum. Through measuring plant specimens and examining patterns in data, students had opportunities to discuss how to obtain accurate measurements, handle noisy data, and request data that would be helpful for further investigation of the patterns they observed. In our example, we focused on one flowering plant, the royal penstemon (Penstemon speciosus), which varies in size across environmental gradients: larger plants are found at lower elevations, and smaller ones on the highest peaks, a pattern commonly observed in nature. Overall, this lesson led students to observe this pattern and wonder about the environmental constraints affecting phenotypes. We provide examples of the kinds of activities that could follow our lesson to provide students with opportunities to connect their ideas to intraspecific variation, a key component for understanding evolutionary processes.
Despite the importance that taxonomy and species identification have in our current understanding of ecology, evolution, and conservation of organisms, it is a challenging topic to teach. One of the primary reasons for this challenge is the lack of student motivation to learn organism classification and identification, which is often reinforced by curricula that do not show the practical value of taxonomic knowledge. This article describes an inquiry-based learning activity designed to show students the real-world value of organism identification. In this activity, students relate the misidentification of baitfish to the spread of invasive species via the baitfish industry. Students role play as fish ecologists and help a bait shop owner identify the specimens in their baitfish supply and subsequently develop a strategy to ensure that the business is not contributing to the spread of invasive species. By relating the field of taxonomy to species invasions, instructors can show students that they are learning information and gaining skills that have utility outside of the classroom. We found this to be an appealing alternative to other species identification activities, which typically focus on low-level learning, and we are excited to share our approach with the readers of The American Biology Teacher.
Although climate change garners the bulk of headlines, ocean acidification is an equally important issue that also results from our increasing consumption of fossil fuels. As atmospheric CO2 dissolves into the ocean, the ocean's pH decreases, making it increasingly difficult for organisms that build calcium carbonate skeletons to grow and thrive. Given that these marine calcifiers – such as corals, snails, shellfish, crustaceans, and plankton – often form the base of oceanic food webs and are habitat and food resources for larger oceanic plants and animals (including humans), ocean acidification poses a serious threat. In this article, we present a series of investigations that provide evidence that increases in anthropogenic sources of CO2 contribute to the acidification of the ocean, and that an increasingly acidic ocean can negatively impact marine calcifiers.
Teaching students about ecological disturbance provides them with an understanding of a critical factor that shapes the structure and function of biological communities in environmental systems. This article describes four simple experiments and related curriculum that students can use to conduct inquiry around the theme of disturbance in stream ecosystems: insect drift, colonization, life history, and the intermediate disturbance hypothesis. Over five years, our students conducted these experiments 57 times; 79% of the experiments resulted in data that supported students' hypotheses. Our findings show that the experiments can be used as a framework for inquiry-based learning about important ecological processes such as disturbance, dispersal, colonization, and succession. These experiments meet several of the Next Generation Science Standards, are easily and ethically conducted, and require very little equipment.
The study of mammals that hibernate provides a unique avenue for students to explore the concepts of metabolism, bone structure, and the impact of climate change on mammals with evolutionary adaptations to extreme seasonal changes in food supply. “Secrets of the Hibernators” is a student-centered, self-guided kit developed by educators in close collaboration with biologists studying the physiology of hibernating animals. The kit uses a hands-on, inquiry-based approach, providing students access to research data that they can easily analyze and interpret, as well as an experimental model for exploring how temperature can affect metabolism. Students learn how the study of hibernators may provide clues to help find solutions to human diseases such as obesity and osteoporosis.
Ecological field techniques such as transect surveys are long-used, integral means of immersing students in field exercises to illustrate ecological measures. Many species of crayfish create conspicuous burrows within or near aquatic habitats. Such burrows can easily be identified and measured by students during an ecological field exercise. In this article, we describe a field activity we developed as part of a college-level course in which students utilized transects and calipers to collect counts and measurements of crayfish burrows in order to evaluate their distribution and size among different substratum types along a small stream. This field exercise could be incorporated, with or without modification, into an applicable high school or introductory/intermediate college biology course as a means of illustrating ecological concepts, sampling technique, and/or behavioral biology.