Fieldwork

To ensure the success of RoboPlant, we need to check whether the target group is on board. I visited my old primary school to see what children know about plants, including common misconceptions and confusions, and to see what they think of our current RoboPlant design. It was a trip down memory lane, as my year three teacher greeted me with some hilarious photos of 7-year-old me at the class Christmas party. The chosen pupils were excited to be part of my ‘research group’ and really keen to tell me what they knew, jumping off their seats with their arms stretched.

The year threes (age 7) enthusiastically told me that plants grow from seeds, that they need leaves to make energy, that they get energy from the sun and rain, and that humans breathe out carbon dioxide which plants use. Plants give us food, vegetables, wood and paper, nice smells if you have a blocked up nose, and dock leaves makes a nettle sting better. Yes, I grew up in the countryside! They didn’t yet know the word photosynthesis, and needed prompting to remember that plants make sugars, but they were confident that light was very important, telling me about an experiment they had done where a bean plant without sun died before the bean plant without water. The year fours (age 8) also understood that plants need water, sun and carbon dioxide, and that we need them for food.

The year fives (age 9) warned me that ‘most plants in tropical rainforests are poisonous’ and that ‘some plants feed on tiny reptiles’. They were slightly disgusted when I told them I used to feed dead wasps to my venus fly trap, so examples of extreme plants are likely to be a hit in the lecture! I was impressed when one group starting talking about transpiration (the movement of water through a plant), although they described it as plants ‘sweating’. Chloroplasts were shrugged off, although some thought it might be like chlorine like in a swimming pool. It took some encouragement to tell me that water is hydrogen and oxygen, so if we are going to explain the splitting of water, we may need to take it slowly.

Overall, plants making sugars was often overlooked, and there was some hesitation over which gas went where. There was clearly an emphasis on plants ‘breathing out’ oxygen, which is understandable considering that cellular respiration (where the energy in stored sugars is ‘unlocked’ by oxygen) is not taught at this level. We will need to choose our language carefully as a balance between scientific accuracy and what the children can relate to. They clearly understood the importance of light and the use of plants as food and materials, and their enthusiasm for renewable energy was encouraging. When I explained that petrol comes from ancient plants they were quick to inform me not to worry, that we can use electricity, and apparently orange juice (later found to be possible!), to power our cars. Our beanstalk design was appreciated, and there was a mixed reaction about whether it should have a flower, though they did know a lot about pollen and bees, so we should definitely think about it. One child thought that buttons could be pressed to illuminate different parts of the plant as you were talking about them…I’ll hand that one over to Mutti and Alastair!

Imagine RoboPlant in action: a bubbling, bright, leafy robot towering over excitable children. If we capture their imagination, we may succeed in encouraging the scientists of the future.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the afternoon:

“As soon as you get a papercut, it’s not because of the plant making the paper, because you did it yourself”

“[Plants] will only attack you if they get offended”

Me: Do you know where we get petrol from?

Child A: Aliens. They make petrol aliens.

Me: Hmm.. .not quite, can anyone help Child A out?

Child B: I don’t know what to say to that.

“Are you putting a modern twist on a plant?”

When asked if they minded missing 10 minutes of PE to talk to me:

“I missed my race but I don’t mind.” “Yeah, I’d rather learn about plants than do PE.”

Winning!

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