Plant BLOOME 2023 Winners Announced

ASPB established the Plant Biology Learning Objectives, Outreach Materials, & Education (Plant BLOOME) grant program with the goal to enhance public awareness and understanding of the essential roles of plants in all areas of life ( Congratulations to the 2023 ASPB Plant BLOOME grant recipients!

Engaging high school students in the Springfield Massachusetts Public Schools in a Plant Microbiology and Bioinformatics Research Course, with an option of exclusively online or hybrid hands-on-learning

PI: Jedaidah Chilufya, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This ASPB Plant BLOOME Award is very exciting because it will help bring an accessible and inclusive hands-on Plant Biology course to minority students in the Springfield public high schools. Springfield public high schools in Massachusetts enroll a high number of minority students (90%). However, the grade 12 dropout rate is highest for these students. Most high school dropouts lose interest in school because they are struggling, or they believe what they learn is not useful for their current or future lives. Therefore, using the philosophy of the growth mindset and inquiry-based learning, this Plant BLOOME project aims to use science hands-on-learning in a plant biology subject matter that has real life implications, with potential for discoveries to 1) support and encourage continued learning to 11th and 12th graders and, 2) instill confidence in the students to prepare them for higher education or entrepreneurial careers.

This Plant Microbiology and Bioinformatics project is an inclusive and accessible course with the option of being exclusively online (conducting experiments at home), or hybrid (with most experiments conducted in the classroom). This course will teach the students how to learn, ask questions, take intellectual risks, and skillfully harness the huge available information to thrive. We believe these skills will contribute to helping the students navigate school, our modern world, and the complex-future world. With the overarching research question, “Does the soil in my neighborhood contain beneficial soil bacteria that interacts with legume plants to provide nitrogen biofertilizer for their growth”, teachers at Springfield high school will be trained on how to guide students through the scientific method to address this question. Their feedback and input on the course will be collected for any amendments. Then, the research course will be taught to grade 11 and 12 students. The students will collect soil from their neighborhoods, plant a given legume plant in the soil, make and record observations of the plant growth and roots, isolate bacteria from the roots, analyze and interpret the results, and use bioinformatics tools that might help explain their experiment results.

The students’ interests and confidence in conducting plant-research will be assessed through pre, mid and post-course surveys. The student learning outcomes will be assessed weekly and finally at the end of the course via a poster presentation of their research work. We believe this course is scalable and can be beneficial to all schools in the Springfield public school district. Therefore, we plan to share the course results and outcomes, as well as course syllabus and materials with other high schools in the Springfield public school district. We also look forward to sharing this work at ASPB regional and national meetings and through journal publication.

Genetically Modified Plants: Between Myths and Truths

Lead PI: Haiwei Lu, Central Community College – Hastings (Hastings, NE)

CO-PI: Steven H. Strauss, Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR)

Genetically modified (GM) plants, which include a wide range of transgenic and gene edited (e.g.., CRISPR) traits and crops, hold tremendous promise for plant breeding. Yet the public, including high school students and college students, tend to perceive risks towards releasing GM plants into the environment and consuming food products derived from GM plants. While some of these concerns are legitimate, many are false claims rooted in misconceptions about why and how GM plants are produced—and the extent to which they have been tested for safety. To promote science-based understanding of GM plants, Dr. Haiwei Lu, a biology instructor at Central Community College – Hastings (Hastings, NE) and Dr. Steven H. Strauss, a university distinguished professor at Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR), decided to work collaboratively to develop a learning module that covers GM plant production and regulation.

The proposed learning module will consist of several lectures and present up-to-date knowledge on how GM crops are similar to and different from conventional breeding, how GM plants are produced in laboratory settings, which GM plants have been commercialized, and how the environmental and commercial release of GM plants are regulated.  This learning module primarily targets first-year college and high school students.  We will design the components of the module to be easily adapted to a wider range of audiences in different educational settings. Some examples include middle schoolers in summer camps, K-12 teachers in professional development programs, and senior people in post-retirement learning programs.

Drs. Lu and Strauss feel excited about this Plant-BLOOME-supported project. We anticipate that this learning module will promote rational, evidence based understanding of GM crops among the public.

The Clover Project — connecting genetics, ecology and plant science in the Biology classroom

PI: Kenneth Olsen, Washington University in St. Louis

This BLOOME project supports a high school Biology classroom lab activity  — “The Clover Project” — that uses common lawn clover to investigate the connections between genetics, ecology, plant physiology, and local climatic adaptation.  White clover (Trifolium repens) is naturally polymorphic for cyanogenesis (HCN release following tissue damage), a well-studied anti-herbivore defense.  White clover plants may be either cyanogenic or acyanogenic, and population frequencies vary by climate across North America — ranging from >95% cyanogenic plants in the deep South to <10% in the northern Midwest.  Cyanogenesis occurs when cell rupture in damaged leaf tissue brings together two required precursors (cyanogenic glucosides and their hydrolyzing enzyme), detonating a “cyanide bomb”. The polymorphism is controlled by two simple Mendelian polymorphisms that determine the presence/absence of each required precursor.

Clover plants are easily assayed for cyanide production in the classroom using color-changing test paper, allowing students to calculate their local genotype frequencies and compare their data to classes from other climates across the country. In so doing, the project engages high school students and teachers nationwide in hands-on, inquiry-based learning that spans plant biology, ecology and evolution. As one teacher user has commented, “I think this project is so powerful because it pulls together so many topics in biology… from enzyme activity, to genetics, evolution, ecology and even plant structure!”

Our BLOOME project is a collaboration of Ken Olsen, a professor and plant evolutionary biologist in the Biology Department of Washington University in St. Louis, and Carolyn “Beanie” Spangler, a Biology teacher at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. We receive additional support through Washington University’s Institute for School Partnership. We’re very excited to have the ASPB’s support for The Clover Project, as this will allow us to continue to provide teachers and their classes with cyanogenesis testing kits and instructional materials developed by and for teachers. More than 300 teachers and thousands of high school students have used this lab activity to date. We’re looking forward to expanding and developing The Clover Project even further with our BLOOME funding.

“Bay dunde” (Farming for Living in Wolof)

Khadidiatou Sall, Science Education Exchange for Sustainable Development

In 2015, I initiated SeeSD (Science Education Exchange for Sustainable Development), an organization committed to advancing Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) education and fostering critical thinking and scientific literacy among African youth. Since its inception, SeeSD has evolved into a non-profit organization with a steadfast focus on promoting STEAM education and empowering young minds across the African continent. With the ASPB BLOOME grant, our SeeSD team will develop a program called “Bay dunde” (meaning “farming for living” in the Wolof language). This program is centered around plant biology, farming, and traditional cultivation techniques. It encourages students to explore plant evolution, genetics, and innovative farming methods suitable for both urban and rural environments, taking into consideration factors such as space availability and local demographics.

Our program aims to stimulate discussions on domestication, food security, and environmental conservation, within the context of rapidly changing habitats, climate change, and high inflation rates. Collaborating with local universities and community centers, our program offers a range of workshops facilitated by professionals who share their expertise. We specifically focus on urban areas, particularly neighborhoods with high population density, limited space around housing, and significant socio-economic disparities. The goal is to educate individuals, especially young students, about resource-efficient alternatives that can address challenges related to urbanization, malnutrition, and food security.

Our project’s objective is to advance STEAM education in Africa, using Senegal as a case study to implement and evaluate programs that can serve as exemplary models for education decisions across the continent. The program emphasizes teaching the fundamental principles of plant biology and demonstrating their relevance in addressing local food security issues. By familiarizing learners with seed propagation, germination, transplantation, and the maintenance of micro-gardens, we highlight the importance of sustaining plant-based ecosystem services and raise awareness about the significance of plant biodiversity for ecological resilience in the face of environmental changes. Moreover, our program instructs learners on the preparation of composting and vermicomposting to promote soil fertility, reduce waste, and support sustainable agriculture. Through our work, we aim to instill in learners a sense of responsibility for recycling, waste management, and environmental conservation, emphasizing the need to protect the environment and adopt sustainable practices.

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