Are plant diversity courses still needed for undergrads?

Ross Koning Koning at ECSUC.CTSTATEU.EDU
Wed Nov 27 16:24:38 EST 1996

At  6:32 AM 11/27/96 -0800, PADAMS at wrote:
>  We hear a lot these days about the great importance of interactive
>learning and about "teaching students to think like scientists" and
>about teaching students to design experiments and test hypotheses.
>This is all well and good, but what about teaching students about the
>great diversity of "plant" (prokaryote, protistan, plant, and fungal)
>organisms, with all those complex life cycles and interesting adaptations
>to myriad environments? Should undergrad bio majors continue to be taught
>"plant kingdom type" courses? If so, at what level in the undergrad
>experience should such courses be taught?  Preston Adams, Dept of
>Biological Science, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN 46135
>    padams at

These are very interesting questions that mandate
a universal decision.  Where shall we go in teaching
botany?  How much, at what level, divided in the
cell, organismal, population etc plane or divided in
the five-kingdom plane?  How comparative should our
comparative courses be (should a plant be in a comparative
anatomy course?)?

I think a national decision should be made...but I
cannot imagine how to do it properly/fairly.  You
can set standards until you are blue in the face,
but will curricula be developed EVERYWHERE to meet
those standards?  As long as the US uses the property
tax (the only one you can vote on) method for funding
local schools, I think we are doomed to minimalist
education.  Incoming students are biological blank
slates in many cases.

Here in CT we even have problems getting towns to pass
school budgets that meet Minimum Expenditure Requirements
(mandated by law!).  To expect that every town has some
minimum of equipment and supplies at each grade level is
preposterous at present.  Having exciting science teachers
with botanical experience is rare.  Sad but true!

At university levels, we have a very hard time making any
curriculum decisions because we cannot assume even minimal
pre-exposure to biology...let alone botany!  Without national
standards...and assured adherence/enforcement...we are,
in my opinion...lost at sea!  I'd like to see an objective
survey including questions like: TF a plant is a non-living
thing.  TF humans would survive if all plants were exterminated.
I think the vast majority of citizens would miss both of
these questions.

Even if we could make assumptions about incoming students,
what to do next is not easy either.  There is value to
all disciplines in biology, yet there is funding for only
some of it.  Shall we do what students need?  Shall we
do what we can afford?  Shall we do only what we know?

Our resources are limited...our OE budget is virtually unchanged
since 1987...worse our purchasing power has been eroded by
inflation.  We have talked about eliminating labs...which
courses?  Eliminating high-tech labs saves the most money
(allowing labs in many other courses) but cheats the students
out of state-of-the-art experiences.  In our department,
faculty end up using research dollars and personal funds to
purchase equipment and supplies.  Instead of beakers we use
plastic cups.  Fancy genotypes?, no, grocery store beans and
popcorn.  "Dr. Koning, I can hardly read the markings on this
disposable syringe"; "That one is only three years old...they
just don't make them like they used to.  Maybe we can get
a new one out next year."

No matter what we do...getting students to think like scientists,
to be excited about learning, to like to study plants is the
most important goal in my opinion.  If we get them started,
they will go in their own directions based on our introductions
and their own interests.  I don't think being a scientist and
being interested in natural history are mutually exclusive.
I think we owe it to our students to provide a broad range
of the best science we can afford...that includes natural

I think it is important to show the science in natural history.
I have never personally enjoyed long catalog-style courses,
but when the faculty member charges a smaller number of good
examples with enthusiasm and real science--well, that's a
whole different matter!  I think S. J. Gould models some good
teaching behavior in this regard.

I think structure and function need integration.  I think
a biology major who is "lost" in the woods should not
be allowed to graduate.  A biology major who is "lost"
in a laboratory should not be allowed to graduate either.
It is important to provide a broad, well-rounded biology
experience to students...especially in light of rapidly
changing technologies and refocus on older subjects once
newer subjects are "covered".

Biology goes in cycles and we need all of us to be
ready for the next "paradigm shift".  In the mean-time
I think it is important to focus on "how we make
decisions" rather than "what we decide" in answering
biological questions.

When I think of the huge tomes our freshmen buy for
introductory biology, my thought process runs into a
"could this much be meaningful in one semester?" idea.
What is enough for our graduating seniors?  I once
mused "if our graduates knew every fact(oid) in Raven
and Johnson maybe that would be good enough."  It
seems to me that this is NOT the way to go.

I think our joy and duty rests in making the student
a scientist first, biologist second, botanist third.
Making the student a repository for knowledge (factoids)
gleaned from real science is last on my current
list of goals.  The body of factoids is just too large,
and memorization too trivial, to move it up on my list.
I know we have better careers waiting for our students
than ones involving repeating back answers from a book.


Ross Koning                 | Koning at
Biology Department          |
Eastern CT State University | Phone: 860-465-5327
Willimantic, CT  06226  USA | Fax: 860-465-5213

                Plant Physiology is Phun!

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|  |  |  |    |  |  ||       //\___     \CH3     /\|/\\/\\COOH
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 /\ | |__|=        NH       |  || ||           //\//\
  | COOH                    \\ /\ /            O
  COOH        H2C=CH2         N  NH

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