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Feature

An elementary school teacher leans about plant life in the lab.

PSI participant Larry Perrott from Farmington Elementary School sets up his investigation to answer the question: Which is stronger? A shoot's response to light or a shoot's response to gravity?

Planting knowledge

A workshop on plant biology helps teachers keep children interested in science

By Dana Setterholm

August 1, 2006

It sounds like the latest incarnation of the television true-crime drama, but PSI Minnesota is not about crime scene investigations in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. PSI (which stands for Plant Science Investigation) isn't about finding whodunit, but about investigation and the search for knowledge about plants, science, and life. PSI Minnesota is a workshop that offers elementary school teachers a chance to work with University professors, developing engaging ways to teach science.

Tom Soulen, a professor emeritus in the plant biology department, began the program after finding research saying that a lot of children are turned off of science by the third grade. "Our suspicion was that a number of the teachers were reluctant to really dig into [science] because they were afraid they didn't know enough about it," Soulen says. He hoped that giving elementary school teachers a basic knowledge of plant biology would help them teach science in a way that encouraged their students' interest in the subject. Soulen also had another goal--to help the teachers gain some hint of what inquiry-based science is." Inquiry-based science focuses on asking questions and then devising a way to find the answers, and plants, which can be grown in the teachers' classrooms, can easily be used in experiments leading to answers. Soulen and a few colleagues pitched the idea to the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, who sent five of their teachers for a pilot workshop.

For many teachers, this chance to "play" is the highlight of the workshop--as one teacher said in an evaluation, it was wonderful "to be on the other side of teaching!"

Sixteen years later, the program is still going strong. Each summer Soulen and four or five colleagues meet with 20 elementary school teachers every day for two weeks. The workshop begins by covering basic plant biology. "We take each part of the plant--seeds, roots and shoots, leaves, and flowers--and explore them," says Kathy Richter, a retired Minneapolis teacher who was part of the pilot workshop in 1990. "The scientists on the staff give talks about them, we have a book we read, and then we do a lot of microscope work and pulling plants apart and looking at their structures." She says that this part of the workshop was particularly beneficial for her as a teacher--"Just having some confidence in the material helped me be more confident in teaching." The teachers are encouraged to explore an aspect of plant biology that interests them, posing questions and doing experiments in preparation for doing the same with their students. For many teachers, this chance to "play" is the highlight of the workshop--as one teacher said in an evaluation, it was wonderful "to be on the other side of teaching!"

And since the teachers are doing the learning, it only makes sense that there is homework. The teachers have a textbook and each morning begins with a discussion based on the reading. The most important assignment, however, is an action plan each one develops for teaching plant science over the following year. Soulen wants the teachers to formulate observational and investigative activities for their students, all focusing on hands-on learning. "[Hands-on learning] is a very big aspect of this," Soulen says. "While there's a lot that one may need to learn about various aspects of science, thinking about these things in the context of actual active explorations can help people get to some of the answers--not necessarily just about plants, but about anything they can approach from a scientific perspective." In this goal, he's certainly succeeded. In one of the three follow-up meetings held throughout the year, one teacher said the most important thing she learned from the workshop was how to pose questions. The teacher also said that she found herself posing "what if" questions across her curriculum, not just in science.

One of the reasons the program has been so successful is the teachers themselves. Every year since the third year, two teachers who have taken the workshop return to help with the workshop. Richter, who is one of these teaching assistants, says she provides a link between the teachers and the University staff. "We're sort of the bridge between the scientists and what actually realistically happens in an elementary classroom," she says.

Helping teachers make practical use of the knowledge they gain is a main focus of the workshop, but it can be difficult to teach plant science without the necessary equipment. Thanks to federal grants, Soulen can now send each teacher back to the classroom armed with planting supplies that will serve their class for years to come. The teachers spend one day assembling a bank of lights to use in growing plants, and Soulen also equips them with pots, trays, soil mix, seeds, instructional books, and a microscope.

PSI also makes use of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, meeting there three days out of ten each year. The teachers appreciate the many examples of plants as well as the educational opportunities offered, especially the learning center, which works with school-age children.

It may not be as dramatic as solving crime, but PSI Minnesota is making a difference in the way teachers present science to children. And you never know--a child whose interest in science is sparked through plant science investigation may just go on to do crime scene investigation.