Fieldwork continued

We need to ensure that RoboPlant can be used to communicate effectively and connect with a variety of age groups and backgrounds, not just with ten year olds at the Christmastime Lecture in December 2013. For my second day of field research I went to my old secondary school, which had been flattened and rebuilt into a jazzy orange all-in-one structure complete with a brand new set of science teachers. From my internet research on key stage 3 and 4, I was expecting a fairly steady increase in knowledge of photosynthesis and respiration from year seven to year twelve. In fact, there is a remarkable jump from primary school to A-level, missing out the middle years, and I later found out why.

Unlike the primary school, my broad ‘Tell me something, anything, about plants!’ was generally met with silence or …‘they’re green?’. Eventually it was clear that they all vaguely knew that photosynthesis needs sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen and food, although often ‘food’ was mixed up with nutrients and minerals, and sugars were never mentioned. It varied whether the pupils knew about chlorophyll, sometimes offering up carbon dioxide, hormones and pollen as the chemical needed for photosynthesis. They knew that plants need food for energy, growth and to make seeds, and that we need plants for food, feeding animals, clothes, making our garden look nice, bees, and oxygen. Some groups knew the word respiration, but thought that it was ‘something to do with breathing’. Again, they were tiptop on solar panels using energy from the sun, and that chopping down rainforests is less than ideal.

They had not studied plants for a while, and I think that having a conversation rather than answering a written exam question threw them off, so their confusion was understandable. While there were fewer distractions and stories about their Nan’s vegetable planting routine than the primary school children, these teenagers did tell me the odd story about a clock running on flies and clothes made out of worms!?

Talking to the head of science, a biology graduate, proved to be invaluable. He explained that teenagers generally have a misconception that plants do not respire, and that only animals respire while plants only photosynthesise. This is partly due to ‘bad teaching’, but also due to the difficulty of jumping from ‘food’ in primary schools to ‘glucose which can be converted into other things’ in secondary schools. I was shocked to find that photosynthesis is not a required topic at GCSE, and that respiration is taught as a completely separate topic from photosynthesis. From the science teacher’s point of view, very few kids go on to study sciences in depth, so keeping photosynthesis until A-level biology makes sense. It would be difficult to sort out any misconceptions before this, especially with struggling kids, and knowing the ins and outs of these processes does not directly affect them. There has been a huge move towards a 21st century education which focuses on teaching science that will directly impact their lives. Understanding genetics, how the human body works and the differences between sources of energy may be more useful and relevant to someone leaving school after GCSEs compared to learning the complex chemistry in a plant.

I was pleasantly surprised by a teacher who saw the big picture of education: To prepare young people to be knowledgeable and active citizens, rather than simply fuelling kids for exams and keeping them out of trouble. I proposed that knowing some of the complexities in plants could enthuse kids about science, and was assured that the usefulness of plants and biodiversity is in a different module, which is studied throughout school. Phew.

Both schools I have visited so far have a wide catchment area with a broad range of students, which I tried to represent in the groups I spoke to. My experiences in these schools suggest that using RoboPlant to focus on the connections between plants and humans will be relevant and appealing to a wide range of school pupils.

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