Wisconsin Fast Plants Network

To know a plant, grow a plant!

With Earth Day approaching, I'm thinking about how important it is--now more than ever--for learners to have a grasp of how scientific practices involve models and modeling. For example, models and model organisms are used extensively by scientists who are involved in the types of systems thinking that are necessary for understanding pressing concerns such as climate change, the impact of the nuclear disaster in Japan or the oil pollution in the gulf. Our students need to develop an appreciation for models as a valuable tool in science that has both strengths and limitations.


The AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy includes model and modeling benchmarks at every grade level. In the middle level, the Benchmarks state:

By the end of the 8th grade, students should know that

  • Models are often used to think about processes that happen too slowly, too quickly, or on too small a scale to observe directly. They are also used for processes that are too vast, too complex, or too dangerous to study. 11B/M1*
  • Mathematical models can be displayed on a computer and then modified to see what happens. 11B/M2
  • Different models can be used to represent the same thing. What model to use depends on its purpose. 11B/M3*
  • Simulations are often useful in modeling events and processes. 11B/M4** (BSL)
  • The usefulness of a model depends on how closely its behavior matches key aspects of what is being modeled. The only way to determine the usefulness of a model is to compare its behavior to the behavior of the real-world object, event, or process being modeled. 11B/M5**
  • A model can sometimes be used to get ideas about how the thing being modeled actually works, but there is no guarantee that these ideas are correct if they are based on the model alone. 11B/M6** (SFAA)

Model organisms are used extensively in research, and Fast Plants are a great example of this.  Dr. Paul Williams developed Fast Plants to model the cabbage he was researching in order to find disease resistance that could help farmers. Students growing Fast Plants in the classroom to learn basic biological structures, functions and processes can also learn about the actual history of Fast Plants development as an introduction to models and modeling. Our "How Fast are Fast Plants?" video includes an introduction to how Fast Plants were developed that is explained by Paul himself -- The Father of Fast Plants.


Similarly, when students use Fast Plants to conduct classroom experiments about environmental effects on growth and development, this is a great opportunity for reflection on how they are modeling an environmental system. A number of resources are available online to support students' learning about models. Coe Williams wrote student-friendly story that tells how Fast Plants were developed that is on our website; it's called The Story of Fast Plants. Another online resource I like is on Teachers Domain. This particular Teacher's Domain resources includes an interactive animation, background essay, and activity suggestion for teaching about model organisms - http://www.teachersdomain.org/resource/hew06.sci.life.gen.modelorg/


We'd like to hear from you about teaching with and about models and modeling. How are you supporting English Language Learners to understand that Fast Plants are a model organism for other flowering plants found in nature, for example?

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Comment by Hedi Baxter Lauffer on April 20, 2011 at 12:46am

So fun to hear about your 5th graders, Shelly; I can just imagine what you are describing! Quantifying and graphing height is such a good idea--really gives learners an opportunity to collect data, organize and represent it, AND figure out what it means.

Just these last few weeks I've been working with two 5th grade teachers who had students growing Fast Plants and reading our new Reading Green stories, and it was so cool to visit and share in their enthusiasm for their plants (and also for their stories). They were at Day 15 last Friday and pollinating when one of the teachers wrote to me: "Bee sticks are a hoot.. Funny who is less brave and who is eager to try it. Surprises me each time." Such fun, and pollinating with bee sticks can be another good example of modeling a natural process to learn about it.

Comment by Shelly Lee Biggin on April 19, 2011 at 10:19am
Our 5th grade is studying plant growth using Fast Plants, radish, bean plants, and sunflower seeds right now. It is an exciting time for our students. They are amazed at how the plants have grown so quickly. We are on Day 13 and 14 and the plants have already started to flower. I have really noticed how the stem grew over the weekend with the buds ready to open. ( I checked on the plants and watered if necessary. ) This year we are keeping track of the height of the plant each day we are in school. We are going to graph the information and predict the growth over the weekend when the students were not in school. This is such a fun learning project and something they will never forget.
We have used your simple set up for the light source with milk crates, aluminum foil, and a 150 vott bulb. We are comparing the results to the Carolina set up with the other 5th grade class is using.
Shelly Biggin
North Crawford School District



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