Our research program involves developmental mechanisms that determine when and how plants produce their flowers (the floral transition), and how this knowledge enables plant breeding and food production. These simple concepts provide an ideal foundation to develop hands-on teaching programs targeted to younger student audiences. Through an NSF Plant Genome Grant, we have teamed up with an elementary school in Queens, New York (PS/IS499) and established a two-part workshop that teaches 3rd-5th grade students about plant growth, DNA, and basic genetic concepts. We introduce the students to several different species of plants (Tomato, Petunia, Tobacco, and several wild Solanaceae), and we bring live specimens representing non-flowering, floral transition, and fully flowering stages. Students are taught basic concepts on what major changes take place as plants begin making flowers, and we ask them to propose ideas as to how and why these changes are taking place.
The focus is to get students to think about the importance of the environment in the flowering process, and how the plant must change its developmental program in response to changing growth conditions. We then introduce concepts on the tools that breeders use to develop new varieties, by selecting the best performing plants each generation. Students are then allowed to dissect petunia flowers to learn the form and function of different floral organs, highlighting the different pollination strategies that exist in nature. In the second part of the workshop performed by the science educators, there is a discussion about mutants, and how mutations in DNA give rise to differences in flower, fruit and seed types. Our outreach program exposes students to plant development, botany, plant breeding, and food production. Our hands-on lessons are highly interactive and stimulating, in which students get to touch and manipulate plants. In the future, we hope to expand this program to additional grades to allow young students and teachers to experience first hand how fundamental developmental and genetic principles established in model systems can be translated to applied aspects of plant biology.