Plant Sleuths

By Eve Pranis

"My students learn early on that I won't give them answers," said fifth grade teacher Horace Puglisi in Essex, VT. "I want them to learn what science is all about, not by looking at pictures in a book but by rolling up their sleeves, getting close to the subject, and constructing their own understanding of the world."

With this philosophy in mind, Horace initiated his three-week Lost Plant Study unit. In late summer, Horace digs up and pots 30-40 wild indigenous plants including weeds, tree seedlings, and ferns. He's found that plants survive best if left outside for a week or so before being brought into the classroom.

Horace then challenges his students to discover, like other great scientists, the identities of the mystery plants. Students use microscopes, do macro and micro drawings, have access to a range of plant identification books, and ultimately identify and verify their plants. Each student then creates a "lost plant booklet."

Once the classroom scientists have identified all plants, they use the computer to develop a database featuring Latin and common names, location, and other data, then develop their own unique taxonomy to categorize the different types of plants. Also using a computer, students write letters to a fictitious plant society describing and touting their investigation and discovery.

"The students are actively investigating and thinking the whole time," reported Horace. "I knew it had been worthwhile when, long after the unit during a geology field trip, one student excitedly shouted, 'Hey, Mr. Puglisi, there's my lost plant!'"

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