Getting to Know Plants

By Eve Pranis

What should kids know about plants? The formula for photosynthesis? The difference between a taproot and fibrous root? A botanist and a fourth grade teacher might have very different responses to this question.

In any case, students need opportunities to observe, explore, and "mess around" with plants to spark their curiosity and appetites for learning more. As educators, we can then encourage active explorations through which students can discover how plants function, survive, and interact with other elements of the ecosystem.

What's the Big Idea?

The GrowLab program, like the National Science Education Standards, Project 2061 Benchmarks, and other current science reform efforts, recommends that teachers emphasize "big ideas" or broad concepts instead of trying to "cover" a wide range of more isolated facts and topics.

What's the idea behind these "big" ideas?

They provide coherence -- a way of organizing and making sense of isolated facts in a meaningful context. Understanding patterns and broad concepts helps us to understand a complex world where we can't possibly know all facts and details, and it makes learning more relevant to our lives.

Less can be more. Kids can develop a deeper understanding of a few important concepts rather than superficially "covering" a wide range. Teachers can start with topics that emerge from students' interests or local guidelines and still ensure that major concepts are addressed.

This approach promotes lifelong learning. At different grade levels, students can revisit relatively few major concepts through different experiences and understand them at increasingly sophisticated levels. A third grader, for instance, might be expected to understand that seeds come in a diversity of shapes and sizes, while a seventh grader might begin to understand that seed diversity exists because seeds evolved with adaptations over millions of years to survive in a wide range of environmental conditions.

What about themes like adaptations or diversity should a student understand? The National Science Education Standards details broad content standards for grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. In general, they suggest that early grades focus on what can be observed in the immediate environment about individual organisms, their needs, and basic associations. They recommend an increasing focus through the grades on plant interactions, patterns in ecosystems, complex relationships, energy flow, and so on.

The list below gives examples of some of the compelling "aha's" -- important concepts that the GrowLab staff hopes both students and teachers will grasp over time through their growing experiences.

There are all kinds of experiences that can help students develop a wonder and appreciation for the miracle and diversity of plant life and to begin to understand plants' vital ecosystem roles. Whether you choose plant activities based on students' interests and questions, school scope and sequence "topics," or other guidelines, you can guide students to grapple with these core life science concepts.

Indoor and outdoor classroom gardens provide abundant opportunities to explore basic needs, structures, life cycles, and more in a relevant context. Thematic gardening projects can be particularly compelling springboards. A butterfly garden, for instance, is an ideal setting for exploring flower adaptations for reproduction, and plant/ animal interdependence. In a "three sisters" (corn-bean-squash) garden, students can examine how a particular culture's planting system helps plants meet certain basic plant needs.

Cultivating Understanding: Sample Core Concepts

These following examples illuminate just one compelling idea related to each concept.

Basic Needs: Plants are living things that have basic needs (e.g., nutrients, water, air), just like humans, but have very different (and interesting) ways of meeting these needs.

Structures/Functions: Structures like leaves, stems, and roots are vital to a plant's role as an energy producer. Structures such as seeds, flowers, and fruits help plants reproduce.

Life Cycles/Changes: Like all living things, plants die, and their nutrients are released by decomposers and returned to the nonliving environment, where they can again by used by other plants.

Adaptations: Since plants can't get around, they've evolved with a multitude of adaptations (structures, responses, compounds, etc.) for protection, meeting basic needs, reproduction, dispersing seeds, and more.

Diversity: There are millions of types of plants, from microscopic ones to the largest living things on Earth, adapted to fill every niche in countless habitats, from frigid tundra to ocean floors.

Interdependence: All living and nonliving components of ecosystems interact, cooperate, and compete, and are dependent on each other. Any change can have wide ranging effects.

Plants and Human Affairs

In addition to understanding how plants function individually and within larger ecosystems, students should develop an appreciation for the role of plants in our lives: their function as oxygen producers and foods; their roles in medicines, clothing, shelter, fuel, cosmetics; their impact on climate and soil stabilization; and their roles as environmental "cleansers."

When students explore human domestication of plants (agriculture), they can appreciate the rich cultural and geographic histories of important plants like potatoes or corn. Give students opportunities to examine the climatic and environmental factors that affect what plants are grown in different regions and to explore the complex relationships between cultures and plants.

Whenever possible, challenge students to make links to the roles plants play in their own lives and examine how we all damage and benefit plants and ecosystems. Creating these links makes learning compelling and relevant to students' lives. It is also vital to helping students respect the need for preserving a diversity of plants to sustain a healthy, living planet.

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