Wisconsin Fast Plants Network

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  Two of my students won 1st place in the Western Ct. State Fair. They competed against over 60 other projects in this part of our state. They one 1st place in juniors Bio.

Their title was "Get the Lead Out!- Can plants be used to extract or absorb
 lead from soil?"

 They took soil samples from heavy traffic areas that might have lots of lead
 in the soil from years of leaded gasoline use (highways, exit ramps, major
roads and gas stations) and used a lead testing kit for soil to pick the
 most contaminated sample.  They planted seeds from brassica, beans, and dill
 to see if they could detect any lead in the plants after 2 weeks or if they
 could see a decrease in the lead they had planted the seeds in.  They then
 tried to quantitate this by using an assay they found with lettuce seeds
 where you grow the seeds in Petri dishes with a plant or soil extract and
 look at the growth of the lettuce seedling roots.  Apparently leaf lettuce
seeds are very sensitive to lead contaminants and will not grow well.
 They didn't see any positive results from the lead test kits or lettuce seed
 bioassay, so it either wasn't sensitive enough, the plants didn't grow
 enough, they were the wrong kind of seeds, or you needed more plants per
 pot. One article they found suggested that mustard weed should have worked.
 Anyway, they followed the whole thing through with appropriate controls, and
 they were very thorough and understood it all, so it was a great learning
 experience for them.  They came up with the idea based on the folks that had
 tried to clean up the mercury/arsenic in the soil in Danbury by planting
 genetically engineered cottonwood trees.

These two students were sisters of two winners using the plants 3 years ago!
Jim Backus
Danbury Ct.

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Wow -- what an interesting question they posed, and they must have worked very diligently to collect their data and both formulate and communicate their explanation well to take first place against 60 other entries! Speaks well of their mentor, too!
that's awesome! I have a sister pair working with fast plants and doing a toxicity study. The first time around, their solutions were too concentrated and nothing grew past 1% except a crystal salt garden. They changed their design and went through a dilution series the other way. They have discovered that at micromolar levels - the (toxic)substance becomes a growth accelerator. I'm talking green giants. The plants grew through the top of a typical milk crate growth chamber. Also when they flowered and through subsequent pollination, the plant mature to death quickly. The seeds though, were more numerous than other plants and they were all viable. They repeated the experiment just using their micromolar solution on three new pots to check to see if what they were viewing was a freak accident.... it is turning out that it is not, the new plants are producing the same results. I believe what is going on is ethylene inhibition letting growth go unchecked, until it builds up to a certain concentration in which overactivates the ethylene for the plant to go through fast maturity. They will enter the regional fair on March 27th with their study. It's very exciting - and I will let you know their results. Their future experiments will be to look at the f1 generation of these plants to see if the substance caused any effect to the genes, or is simply a chemical inhibitor/accelerator.
Well, this is the second set of siblings from the same family that won the regional fair using Fast Plants and a little help from me. But they come from a unique family. Mom has a PHD in Micro-Biology and Dad is a Hand Surgent. ( spelled that wrong )
Jim Backus
I have elementary students (grade 5), and when we use Fast Plants to learn what plants need, we experiment with different environmental conditions. I've had students wonder about how different pollutants might affect how their plants grow, but we haven't really gone there--I steer them towards light vs dark or fertilizer vs no fertilizer.

I wonder if I could help students do a simpler version of what you all describe so kids who were interested could test something about plants needing certain soil conditions (not just fertilizer)? But I do think my kids would need some observable results at their age. Any thoughts?
When I do Fast Plants with my 6th graders ( middle school), I have 5 classes. Each class does different amounts of fertilizer. Ranging from none to too much. We then measure the heights of the plants and number of pods. We compare each of the 5 classes to determine what is the best amount of fertilizer.

We keep everything the same but the amount of fertilizer and then compare results.

Jim Backus
Good idea--having each class change the variable and then share data. I have just one class, so small groups each pick an environmental factor they think will make a difference (in growth and development), and pollution often comes up, but I don't know how to help students really test that. Have you seen this article about house plants that remove toxins? This is the sort of thing that my students are interested in, but it seems very complicated to explore--like the science fair project you described is pretty complicated for most students to do during class.
Interesting article about house plants that remove toxins, Pauline. I wonder if they tried Fast Plants! They went up in space before!

I just came across this blurb about a research study related to salt as a pollutant that might interest you:

A University of Minnesota study recently studied 39 lakes and three major rivers, and found that 70% of the road salt ended up in the watershed. Effects of salt include decreases in biodiversity, reduction in fish numbers and types, and higher mortality rates among organisms that rely on marine life for food.
Hello, Pauline,

After reading about your 5th grade students wanting to do experiments looking at different environmental conditions, I got to thinking about an experiment that one of our first pilot teachers did in 1987. She also taught 5th grade and she designed an experiment called "The Great School Smoke Out", where her students subjected 14-15 day old Fast Plants to either cigarette smoke (3 X day, for 5 minutes each or to differing concentrations of chewing tobacco mixed in the soil. Afterwards, the Fast Plants Program built on her idea with the cigarette smoke and wrote an activity called "Modifying the Atmosphere" where a quads of four plants were placed in a 2 liter soda bottle along with a burning cigarette and the plants were left in the smoky chamber for 5 minutes each day beginning with 7 day old Fast Plants and repeating the procedure for five days. If you're interested and do not have the Fast Plants manual, "Exploring with Wis. Fast Plants", we'd be happy to post it for you.

The other experiment using the chewing tobacco in the soil had very definite visible/measurable results on the plants, and the teacher sent us several photos of the students holding the containers of plants with different concentrations with very proud smiles on their faces. As I recall she reported that her students definitely made the connection between tobacco and its detrimental effect on plant growth. She added that no amount of lecturing would have gotten through to them as did their own hands on experiment.
Hi Coe,

Interesting experiments you describe! I wouldn't be able to do either of these because we have a super strict "drug free" policy districtwide, and I'd have to get all kinds of special permission to have tobacco in my classroom--kinda crazy sometimes! Still, it gives me good ideas.

I was looking on the fp website after Jim's comment about fertilizer and found this one activity called From Above and Below that uses different amounts of salt. I think my kids could relate to that. We talk about how there is saltier soil because of irrigation in some place on Earth when we do our biome unit.

Thanks for the suggestions, though. I bet the tobacco thing was really powerful. I might suggest it for a home science fair project sometime and let the student figure out how to test that. Might make a parent think twice about smoking, too! :-)
Hello, Pauline,

Yes, after I read about not being able to use tobacco for science experimentation at school , "From Above and Below" was exactly my next thought. One of the first experiments with Fast Plants and road salt that I remember was when a teacher living in Milwaukee where they have lots of snow in the winter had his students collect the snow nearest the road, then a few feet back, and then back farther still. They were hypothesizing that the amount of road salt in the snow would be highest right at curbside, and decreasing in amount as you moved farther from the street. As I remember they used the different samples of collected snow for watering their separate containers of plants.

Good luck with your biome unit.

That was in 1987, I would bet dollars to donuts any teacher who tried that would be in big trouble with cigarette smoke or chewing tobacco. As an example, I have seeds from the last Tobacco farm in my part of Ct. Yes Ct. was well known at one time for tobacco for wrappers of Cigars. In fact when I was in high school I worked under those hot nets picking the leaves. Anyhow.. my point is I have the last seeds and I suppose are not good anymore and wanted to do something about planting them to celebrate the towns history . I was told no way by local government who pointed to a state law stating you cannot grow tobacco plants in school.
It seems you are right, Jim, about the attitude toward any tobacco being used in schools today, science experiment or not.




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