course organization

Joseph Holtum Joseph.Holtum at
Mon Jul 16 20:23:40 EST 2001

Dear Plant Edders,

This year, I was asked to give the first 6 lectures in an introductory
first year botany course (1st semester, so the students had no botany
background). Traditionally, the 6 lecture segment covered anatomy and
morphology and introduced ground tissue etc - it was a bit of a dry start
to botany and many students did not enjoy it (most students in the class of
200 or so do botany because as biology majors they feel they ought to). 

It struck me that 

(i) many students look 'down' on plants because they see tham as simple,
unsophisticated and, most importantly, 'foreign' compared to animals,
(ii) the students of the video generation who are entering our system
(usually 17-18) are, to grossly generalise, anthropocentric in their
thinking and not very receptive to abstract ideas, and
(iii) an important part of my role at 1st year level is to be an
'info-entertainer' - I will have suceeded if a significant portion of the
1st year students entertain the idea of taking botany subjects at the 2nd
year level.

I decided to make my lectures anthropocentric - but my job was still to
cover basic plant morphology/anatomy. Later lecturers in the course cover
angiosperms, plant evolution etc

I spent the first 2.5 lectures trying to convince the students that plants
can see, smell, taste, hear, move and communicate. I used the argument that
because we are animals we use terms such as see, smell, taste, hear and
speak for animals but use neutral, non-animal terms such as sensing and
signaling (cf compounds, pressure changes, spectra, volatiles etc) for
plants. I then asked whats the difference between seeing (trapping photons
in the visible) and trapping photons between 400 and 700 nm for
photosynthesis? Or hearing speech and stomata responding to pressure
changes - or smelling and 'detecting' methyl salicylate - or tasting and
detecting a N source in the soil - or wearing lift-and-separate
bras/pectoral-showing singlets/perfume and having bright flowers or hot
volatile-producing flowers - or spitting and exuding flavonoids!

I introduced the problem of plant jargon here - we are used to teeth, eyes
etc but have to learn the different words for plants (stomata, chloroplasts
etc) - and warned them that there would be new words to learn.

I then asked why is it surprising that plants detect and respond to the
same sort of environmental signals as we do, since (i) they inhabit the
same terrestrial environments, (ii) have been on land longer than animals,
and (iii) are the dominant terrestrial organisms (we talk of rainforest,
savanna, boreal biomes). I suggested that we, as humans and animals, are
full of ourselves!

I brandished a banana and informed the class that about 65% of the DNA in
the banana was virtually indistinguishable from DNA in humans (with a
couple of asides about the proportion being greater for rugby players!),
and asked whether it is not surprising that the basic biology of animals
and plants are similar because their biology is similar - they both use
DNA, have evolved from the same organisms (showed evolutionary tree that
demonstrated that plants and animals were more similar than some
unicellular organisms), and undergo, in the main, the same water-based
chemistry. I demonstrated that the elemental make-up of plant and animal
cells was very similar -introducing homeostasis and the concept of
different packaging for different species. 

I then tried to hammer this idea of plants and animals being pretty much
the same things by introducing, in a general way, some of the more
animal-like plant defence responses such as hypersensitive responses,
programmed cell death, systemic aquired resistance (with heaps of piccies),
and the concept that phloem was like blood (lots of things, including
proteins and communication compounds, are moved around).

I stated that adaptation and evolution usually work by modifying the same
starting materials and so we tend to see variations on basic themes. I
introduced the most important difference that plants as sessile organisms
were adapted to living in two different media (dirt and air)

It was only after this 2.5 lecture 'softening up' process that I began to
introduce basic anatomy which I introduced in an anthropocentric and
function-based manner, using general topics such as:

- the plant skeleton (included introducing cell walls with the God-Emperor
G Kelly demonstration of throwing a piece of liver at the ground and
demonstrating that it doesn't bounce and dropping a cucumber that bounced)

- foraging for food (using xylem as the more in-detail example - it allows
me to use as the theme of my lecture the statement that 'the system sucks')

- foraging for light (with absolutely minimal physiology - 1st semester in
1st year is NOT the time for resonance transfer!) 

- protecting oneself (2 sections (a) protection from things that attack/eat
you, and (b) protection from environmental excess/limitation - light/UV

- the naughty bits ( makes it easier for other lecturers to discuss
reproduction later on)

- plant-animal interactions/dispersal (stress on why flowers smell/dont
smell etc)

Of course the softening up period reduced the time I had to present the
anatomy/morphology - and means that the information presented contained
less detail than was given by my predecessor. I took the the view that the
students who go on to take 2nd year botany would accept that detail more
readily than 1st year students.

The student feed-back was pretty good.

Joe Holtum

Dr Joe Holtum,
Dept. of Tropical Plant Sciences,
School of Tropical Biology,
James Cook University,
Townsville, Queensland 4811,

Facsimile:        +61 (int) (0) 747 251 570
Telephone:        +61 (int) (0) 747 814 391
Electronic mail:  joseph.holtum at




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