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Plant Detectives Manual: a research-led approach for teaching plant science

The inspiration for the Plant Detectives Project


If global challenges in food production and the impact of ever-declining biodiversity are to be tackled, every country will need plant biologists who have a deep understanding of plant morphology, physiology and genetics, and how these interact to affect plant function in changing environments. These scientists will also need the capacity to use an effective and powerful set of technologies and research strategies.


These were the motivations behind our redesign of a second-year undergraduate plant science course at The Australian National University in 2007. ‘Plants: Genes to Environment’ ran successfully for many years, but we wanted to do more to inspire students and instill a meaningful involvement in the practical classes. We wanted our students to grapple with the scientific method, to learn at firsthand about the inquiry process, hypothesis development and analysis and interpretation of evidence.


To do this, we created an integrated set of laboratory investigations that we felt truly reflected the mysteries of plant biology and puzzle-solving processes that we had encountered in our research experience. Rather than a set of unconnected experimental activities, we created a series of closely related experiments that focused on solving ‘mysteries’ in the life of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress). The activities charge students with finding the ‘suspect’ gene responsible for the specific phenotypes of an unknown Arabidopsis mutant, which are encountered when they expose the plants to different environmental stresses. This, we hoped, would give keen but inexperienced student scientists a realistic taste of the joys (and frustrations!) of plant science research.


We chose Arabidopsis because of the extensive collection of genetically mapped mutants that are readily available. We challenge budding plant biologists to resolve a biological puzzle, namely the mystery of ‘unknown’ genetic mutations affecting plant form and function. As they do this, students learn to apply the basic concepts in plant biology that they have learned in lectures and from their course readings in a research context. This Plant Detectives Project manual is the tried and tested outcome of several years’ experience guiding our students through authentic plant science experiments that help them become astute researchers and ‘plant detectives’.


In our teaching we colour the class with this inquiry-based approach. First, we partially ‘flip’ the classroom: students are given pre-lecture readings and discussion questions. The students’ answers to these questions, which are presented in group discussions at the beginning of each theory class, drive the lecture format, with the teaching staff emphasising the aspects of that day’s material least understood by students. With this format, we have been able to compress the theory portion of the course into the first half our teaching semester (13 weeks). This means that by the time the laboratory activities begin — a third of the way into the course — the students have a solid theoretical background under their belts. This is tested through an examination that is given two-thirds of the way through the semester. Thus, in the last weeks of the course the students are entirely devoted to the research element of their work. 


As is common in practical science work, students conduct their plant detectives projects in groups of three to five, and work intensively within those groups. Our second innovation, therefore, was to enhance collaborative engagement and break down the barriers between those groups by instituting cross-group ‘lab meetings’ at the start of each practical. These meetings consist of groups of about five students that include one member from each of several project groups. Students share their group’s results from the previous week, and compare the hypotheses and objectives for the current week. These collaborative lab meetings give the students practice in communicating their results, reflecting on their discoveries, and taking new ideas back to their project groups. This mirrors the collaboration of plant science researchers across the world. 


Finally, we conclude each course with a symposium session in which each group presents their results to the class. These sessions are rewarding for students and teaching staff alike, as together we see how the students make links between gene, structure, and function in the environment.


The assessment for the course is a combination of a small number of marks for participation in the discussions in lecture, the symposium presentation, the exam and a final report in the format of a scientific paper. Together, these elements enhance our students’ learning environment and the value of the Plant Detectives Project as a learning experience.


Although thrilled by numerous university and national awards for our innovative teaching, we have been most excited by the interest in our ideas and experimental approaches from other plant science educators in Australia and overseas, who are also seeking to improve their plant biology curriculum and attract more students to plant sciences. We are thus proud to present this manual as a gift to our colleagues worldwide. Here you will find a detailed collection of state-of-the-art procedures in plant biology, as well as background information on more commonly used techniques, and tips for class preparation. The concepts and methods we present can be adapted to meet the specific needs and expertise of the teaching staff, and provide inspiration for scaling up for larger audiences, or simplifying for more junior classes. Through this publication, we hope to support our teaching colleagues in making a significant impact on improving the learning experience of plant biology students worldwide, and hope that we will motivate and inspire a new generation of plant detectives.



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