Elementary Outreach

Most people think all flowers smell beautiful.  Students at Frank Hall Elementary certainly thought so when they entered the “Pollination Celebration” classroom to learn about different kinds of pollinators, and how flowers work to attract them.  “Much of the diversity in plants arises from evolutionary responses to animals, which are sensitive to sensory cues such as color and scent,” said PhD candidate Katherine Chi (Plant Biology), one of the creators of this activity.  “These clues are not only useful for a field botanist who is identifying plants, but also to pollinators, and we wanted the kids to come away understanding this concept.”  Students filled in pages of a “field notebook” by identifying colors and habitats at the different displays they visited. While they loved sampling the sweet and musky smells of species pollinated by moths and bats, everyone was surprised by the foul stink of the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which attracts flies and other carrion-loving insects.  “Some of the faces they made were priceless, but it was definitely the student’s favorite,” Katherine recalled.

On December 5th, a Wednesday before the last week of classes, 31 SIB graduate students trekked three hours north to host a science night for Frank Hall Elementary, a low-income school in Aurora.  The event was put together by the outreach coordinators for Plant Biology Association of Graduate Students (PBAGS), Graduates in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (GEEB), and the Entomology Graduate Student Association (EGSA).  Over the course of the evening, we provided interactive biology education on topics ranging from DNA and cells to animal behavior and human ancestry to over 350 elementary school students and their families.  This was one of the largest outreach events ever undertaken by graduate students in SIB.

Hall Elementary’s science program is currently lacking due to budget cuts, and many of the students do not have much of a connection with science or scientists.  Activities such as “dress like a scientist”, in which students were able to get their pictures taken in field equipment such as waders, as well as interacting with the graduate students, aided in dispelling the myth of the “mad scientist”.  In another room, students made birdfeeders and learned about the birds they can find in their own backyards, while in another, they got to touch insects and learn that they are not so scary after all.

In one of the classrooms, PhD candidate Rhiannon Peery (Plant Biology) showed students how to extract DNA from strawberries.  Previously, most of the students had no background with DNA, and of those that did, many were not aware that plants contained DNA as well as animals.  When the extraction was finished, students could attach their finished product to a string and take them home.  “We were told that our students wore their DNA necklaces to school the next day as a fashion statement,” Rhiannon said. “I think that’s awesome!”

Parents were greatly appreciative of the effort and enthusiasm shown during the event. “I have been receiving a swarm of e-mails from principles and teachers asking if we can put on this event at their schools,” said Julia Ossler, PhD student and outreach coordinator for PBAGS.  Another parent told us that her son has started asking for books on science and wants to be an entomologist, a word he learned at the science night.  In addition to generating interest among students, teachers, and parents, this event was covered in two local Aurora news publications.

At the end of the night, students created a “twitter wall” where they wrote about their favorite experience and what they learned.  Favorite lessons ranged from “When there is too much carbon dioxide, plants close their stomata” to “different animals have different mouthparts to eat different things.”  One “tweet”, however, was something that we SIB students have known all along: “I learned that science can be better than plain old learning.  Science is sweet.”

All pictures used with permission by the participants.

Graduates in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Plant Biology Association of Graduate Students
Entomology Graduate Student Association

Plant Biology professors Steve Long and Don Ort are awarded $25 million from Gates!

This transformative grant will enable new research to improve the photosynthetic efficiency and production of important crop plants. Faced with an ever growing world population, increasing food production is of paramount importance. The Gates Foundation grant will involve several SIB faculty, including Andrew Leakey and Lisa Ainsworth, and will put the school and department at the forefront of international efforts to improve food security.

For the full story here: http://www.igb.illinois.edu/news/illinois-improve-crop-yield-through-photosynthesis-new-global-effort