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Imagining a virus April 27 2020, 1 Comment

We are all making major adjustments as the novel coronavirus runs around the globe. I would like to have some magic to work on the problems of teaching remotely and sudden, forced homeschooling, but the only magic I know is the wonder of nature. I’ll give you some lesson ideas to help deliver wonder to children.

The present situation calls for explorations of viruses. These tiny entities are hard to understand without some good illustrations and models. You can start with a math lesson about their size. You will need a meter stick or other way to measure a meter, and a ruler or a meter stick that is marked in millimeters. Children can observe a meter and then a millimeter (mm). Note that a millimeter is one-thousandth of a meter. One millimeter is about the diameter of the head of a pin. The smallest known vertebrate, a frog named Paedophryne amanuensis, is about 8 mm long.

Next, children and adults have to use their imaginations. The smallest thing that we can see using only our eyes is about a tenth of a millimeter. We need to go much smaller than that. The unit that is one-thousandth of a millimeter is a micrometer (officially spelled “micrometre” outside the US and abbreviated μm). The micrometer is useful for measuring bacteria, organelles in eukaryotic cells, and the shorter wavelengths of infrared radiation. Most animal cells range from 10-30 μm across.  

While a few of the giant viruses are in the 0.5 micrometer range, most viruses are much smaller. (Yes, there are such things as giant viruses, but they don’t infect humans.) To measure the diameter of most viruses, we need to go a thousand times smaller than a micrometer, down to the nanometer (abbreviated nm). The nanometer is one-thousandth of a micrometer. The wavelengths of visible light range from about 400-700 nm. The DNA helix is about 2 nm across, and common viruses range from 20-300 nm in diameter.

The highest magnification in a light microscope is 1000X. We can see bacteria and the giant viruses with this magnification, but to see anything smaller, we must use an electron microscope. For detailed pictures of a virion (a single particle of virus) like the one below, biologists use computer illustrations based on the molecules that make up the particle.

This website, https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/cells/scale/, from the University of Utah has a great illustration of viral size vs. other objects. There is a slider underneath the illustration that allows one to see at increasing magnification down to the size of the carbon atom. The journey helps put viruses into perspective.

My booklet, “What is a virus?” has information on the structure of viruses, their replication, and how biologists image them. See https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/frontpage/products/what-is-a-virus. (If you have the second edition of my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected, you already have most of this booklet.) This booklet includes a pattern for making a scale model of an adenovirus. To design this model, I took the measurements of the virion in nanometers and scaled them up to millimeters. I used two-ply baby yarn for the viral DNA. The model is 1,000,000 times larger than the real viral particle; it is about the size of a baseball.

If you want to make a coronavirus model, you can use a roughly spherical object that is about 10 cm in diameter and add 1 cm spikes on the outside. This gives you a virus model that is 120 mm across. The viral particle itself is 120 nm across. If you want to show the RNA inside, your model needs to be transparent or have a flap that opens to show what’s inside. A single strand from baby yarn is the right diameter to model the virus's RNA at this scale.

Try calculating how tall you would be if you were a million times larger. If you want to do it the easy way, use a unit converter on the Internet. Enter your height and then add six zeros. To give you an idea of the answer, if an average height woman were a million times taller, she would be about 1000 miles or 1600 kilometers tall!

You may wonder how something so small as a virus can change our world in such major ways. There are many people trying to figure that out right now.


Spring cleaning in your biology closet March 04 2020, 0 Comments

It’s that time of year when the urge to put things in order can strike. You may have a closet with a lot of biology materials that you want to evaluate. Here are my suggestions for things to throw out. You may not want to discard the whole material just because it has flawed content provided it is feasible to fix the problems.

In the animal kingdom materials, if you find anything that has the phylum Coelenterata, please remove that name or cover it. Biologists haven’t used it for more than 30 years. That phylum was split into two others when biologists discovered that it held two unrelated groups. The two lineages are called phylum Cnidaria (anemones, corals, and jellyfish) and phylum Ctenophora (comb jellies). It is likely that you can cover over “Coelenterata” and add the label “Cnidaria.” Just make sure that you don’t have comb jellies in with your cnidarians.

Another no-no for the animal kingdom is showing protozoa along with the animals. This goes back to the two-kingdom idea of classification, and biologists and biology textbooks haven’t grouped protozoans with animals in more than 40 years.

If you find a chart that is labeled “Non-Chordates,” change the title to “Invertebrates.” Maybe “non-Chordate” was useful in the past, but biologists use “invertebrate” far more often. I searched books on Amazon.com using “non-chordates,” and I got six titles, all published outside the US. I searched “invertebrates,” and got over 6000 titles. A non-chordate chart isn’t likely to show current information, so it is time to recycle it or at least recycle the images and add new text.

The relationships between the phyla of animals solidified about 15 years ago. In biology, classification has morphed into systematics, which all about relationships and shared common ancestry. The details of this would take several blogs so I will simply say that the arthropods are related to the nematodes, and the mollusks are related to the annelids. Arthropods were once grouped with annelids, but that is no longer considered valid. Can you add something to your animal kingdom chart that shows which phyla are closely related? See my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected, for help if your animal kingdom chart needs a redo. https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/frontpage/products/kingdoms-of-life-connected-second-edition.  It is also available as an ebook (pdf).

Dig back into the cobwebs in the botany section of your closet. If your chart of the plant has club mosses separated from the fern clade – whisk ferns, horsetails, and ferns – you have a good representation of life’s diversity. The chart from InPrint for Children is a good example. https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/montessori-botany-materials/products/plant-kingdom-chart . Another mark of a current material – it should use the term “eudicots” instead of “dicots.”  If your chart has phylum names, it is quite possible that many of the names are obsolete. Many botanists no longer use phyla or division names. Instead, they use lineage names, and sometimes a common name is all you need. I have a graduate level botany textbook that uses no phylum/division names. 

If your plant kingdom chart has fungi or bacteria on it, the time has come to do some serious pruning. Those two have to go to their own charts. If the image of a fungus appears on a plant kingdom chart, that’s what children will remember even if you say that it doesn’t belong there. The fungus kingdom is a sister to the animal kingdom. In nature, fungi and plants are partners, but on classification charts, they shouldn’t hang around together.

If you have a Five Kingdoms chart, file it under the history of biology. It should NOT be the first thing children see as they study the diversity of life. The Tree of Life is the place to start.

How about your timeline of life? This is a difficult material to do well, and there are many bad attempts out there. Does your timeline show several red lines coming together (converging)? That’s the traditional style, but lineages do not converge (fuse together); they diverge (split apart). Maybe you could salvage the images and redo the timeline without the misleading lines. Check the dates for the fossils because there are several in the wrong place on the older timelines.

Does your timeline of life have photos of extant animals or plants in prehistoric times? This gives a very wrong impression. I’ve seen a timeline that had “First marsupial” and a picture of a kangaroo. This is just like saying “First eutherian (placental) mammal” and showing a picture of a horse. Both the kangaroo and the horse evolved within the last few million years. They are both adapted to live on grasslands and open shrub lands, where resources are spread out, and there is little cover from predators. Therefore both are good at moving quickly over long distances. Neither one of them belongs in the Mesozoic Era on a timeline of life. Mesozoic mammals were much smaller and less specialized.

Does your timeline have the five major extinctions? And does it have ice ages in the right places? The older charts used ice to symbolize all extinctions, although that wasn’t the cause in most of them. The five major extinctions come at the end of the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous Periods. They are such important shapers of life that they are essential to a good timeline.

If all this correcting sounds like too much to do, remember that you are doing it for the children. They need current information and a foundation that they can use in their future studies. There is no point in giving them science “information” that they will never see outside a Montessori classroom.


An imaginary look at the animal kingdom nesting boxes January 14 2020, 2 Comments

In my last post, I took readers on an imaginary tour of nesting boxes for the plant kingdom. These materials are traditionally called Chinese boxes, but I prefer to use “nesting boxes.” Children explore the structure and major lineages of a kingdom of life with this material. Nesting boxes work well for showing the lineages of the animal kingdom provided the content reflects current knowledge.

Here’s an imaginary tour of nesting boxes for the animal kingdom as it is defined today. I believe firmly that we should be giving children terms that they will see in their further studies, not terms that are historical and that do not appear in modern textbooks.

To start our tour, picture a large red box labeled “Animal Kingdom.” We remove the lid, and inside there is a small box that is labeled “Phylum Porifera, the sponges.” This group was once called the Parazoa, but this term has fallen out of favor, and I recommend these animals be called the sponges. Once thought to be several separate lineages, they are now placed on one lineage, Porifera (“the pore-bearers”).

Along with the little Porifera box, there is a much larger box that takes up most of the animal kingdom box. It is labeled “Eumetazoa, the true animals.” We lift the lid, and inside there are two small boxes labeled “Phylum Ctenophora, the comb jellies” and “Phylum Cnidaria, the stingers.” A large box labeled “Bilateria” takes up most of the remaining space, and it holds the animals with bilateral symmetry.

Cnidarians include the sea anemones, corals, and jellyfish. The comb jellies include sea gooseberries and sea walnuts. These two phyla were previously placed in a single phylum. That phylum, Coelenterata, is obsolete and should not appear in current animal kingdom classification studies. Our small red boxes are labeled “Phylum Cnidaria, the stingers,” and “Phylum Ctenophora, the comb-bearers,” and “Coelenterata” is not here at all.

The big box labeled “Bilateria, animals with bilateral symmetry” contains two boxes, which are labeled Protostomes (“mouth first”) and Deuterostomes (“mouth second”). These names reflect a difference in the development of the fertilized egg in these two lineages. The deuterostome box takes up about 1/3 of the space. We look inside it, and we find two boxes, one labeled “Phylum Echinodermata, the spiny skins,” and the other “Phylum Chordata, the corded ones.” The echinoderm box has the sea urchins, sea stars, and sea cucumbers inside. The chordate box has its three subphyla inside, the lancelets, the tunicates, and the vertebrates. Note that chordates are not the same as vertebrates! I’ve seen them mistakenly equated in Montessori materials. (If you find the term “non-chordate” in your materials, it would be best to change it to “invertebrate.”)

The protostome box has two boxes inside, one labeled “Spiralia” or “Lophotrochozoa” and one labeled “Ecdysozoa.” The Spiralia box has the rotifers, the flatworms, the mollusks, and the annelids (segmented worms). This box also has the name Lophotrochozoa although some biologists use this cumbersome term for only a part of the Spiralia. The term Spiralia could change so check again in a few years to see the current story. The Spiralia are named for the pattern of cells in the early embryos of most species.

“Lophotrochozoa” is still used for the Spiralia lineage in many college textbooks, but this could to change by the time elementary children reach college age. I have adopted “Spiralia” because of biologists’ support for it, and it is easier to spell and say. My book, Kingdoms of Life Connected, still has “Lophotrochozoa” because when I reprinted it last year, the term “Spiralia” was not yet shown in Wikipedia (usually a good source for the latest phylogeny). I hope biologists have settled on the name by the time I print the book again.

The ecdysozoa are the molting animals. They shed their whole outer covering at once. This is the most successful animal lineage in terms of numbers of species and numbers of individuals. The Phylum Arthropoda, the jointed feet, and the Phylum Nematoda, the roundworms, are the two main phyla in this box. Tardigrades and velvet worms could also go here if space allows and if you want to get that level of detail.

If any of your animal kingdom materials include “protozoa,” please remove them and study them with the eukaryotic supergroups (protists). They do not belong in the animal kingdom. If your nesting boxes for animals have protozoa, the best time to change this was about 40 years ago. The second best time is now.

I’ve presented a basic look at the animal kingdom here. If you would like further information on the animal kingdom or the lineages I gave in this article, please see my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected. https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/kingdoms-of-life-connected-second-edition (printed) and https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/kingdoms-of-life-connected-ebook-1 (pdf).

If you want to evaluate an animal kingdom chart, look for the groupings I gave for the nesting boxes. The nematodes should be grouped with the arthropods. The echinoderms should be grouped with the chordates. This is because biologists group organisms according to their shared ancestors, not just how they look. The chart from InPrint for Children places related phyla next to each other. See https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/animal-kingdom-chart.

My photo card set for the animal kingdom - https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/zoology-photo-cards-set-1-major-phyla-of-the-animal-kingdom – gives you high quality images of representative animals across the kingdom. They could be used in or alongside a nesting box material.

Happy explorations of the animal kingdom,

Priscilla

 

PS. I am putting my reply here to two comments below. I'm sorry I don't have pictures of this imaginary material for you, Gail. I, too, am a visual learner. I think Cindy's idea of referring to the animal kingdom diagram from my Tree of Life chart might help. Yes, the lids on the boxes would be like a node on the evolutionary tree (phylogeny). The reason that there isn't a box for the Radiata is that they don't seem to share a common ancestor other than the one for all animals. If they did share a more recent ancestor, they might still be in Coelenterata. They have a similar organization, although the ctenophores are described as biradially symmetrical. They have a combination of radial and bilateral symmetry. The cnidarians are genuinely radially symmetrical. These two phyla came from separate experiments by early animal life. This is different than the the two phyla shown in the Ecdysozoa. They shared a common ancestor - at least there evidence for this in their genomes. 

Thank you for sending your questions and comments. Please feel free to ask further questions.  


An imaginary tour of nesting boxes for the plant kingdom December 13 2019, 0 Comments

The nesting boxes for the plant kingdom are a classic Montessori material. (They are usually called Chinese boxes, but I don’t like to use that term. They certainly didn’t come from China.) Like many other materials that were created many years ago, this one needs a make-over or at least a reality check to see if it reflects what children will see in their later studies.

Paraphrasing a Chinese proverb, if your nesting/Chinese boxes are based on a two-kingdom classification, and they contain the bacteria and fungi, the best time to change them was before 1980. The second best time is now.

The point of elementary studies isn’t to teach children names and ideas that they are not likely to see again. Maria Montessori said that children who complete her elementary program would have acquired knowledge equal to a high school student of her day. She wasn’t trying to create a separate set of biology terms; she was giving children the mainstream academic knowledge of her day. Continuing to use the terminology and concepts of the traditional lessons without checking to see current academic view leads to problems. Children may have to discard their Montessori lessons and go back to the beginning to learn contemporary biology. “Unlearning” is very hard for people. They tend to cling to the first way they learned something, and they must accept that their version is wrong before they can accept another view.

If there were nesting boxes that reflect the current academic view of the plant kingdom, how would they look? Here are my ideas.

Picture a large, green box that is labeled “Plant Kingdom.” It could have other labels as well as that main one. Possibilities are the more formal Latin Kingdom Plantae, or the more descriptive one, Embryophytes. The latter is the informal scientific name for land plants.

We take the lid off this box and find a small box labeled “Bryophytes, the nonvascular plants” and a much larger one labeled “Tracheophytes, the vascular plants.” Inside the bryophyte box, there are three smaller boxes labeled “hornworts”, “liverworts”, and “mosses.” Should there be a label for the division/phylum of these boxes? There doesn’t have to be. I have an advanced botany textbook that doesn’t use a Linnaean rank name for these branches of plant life. If you want to add the division/phylum names, see Wikipedia. It is generally quite good for plant classification. 

The larger Tracheophyte box contains two boxes, a small one labeled “lycophytes” and a much larger one labeled “euphyllophytes, the true-leaf plants.” The lycophyte box has three small boxes inside, the club mosses, spike mosses, and quillworts. Alternatively, the lycophyte box could list these three lineages on the lid and not separate them. They are best described as orders of the lycophytes.

The euphyllophyte box has two boxes inside, a smaller one labeled “fern clade, the monilophytes” and a larger one labeled “Spermatophytes, the seed plants.” The fern clade box has several smaller boxes. They are labeled: “ophioglossids – whiskferns, alder’s tongue ferns, and grape ferns”; “equisetums – the horsetails and scouring rushes”; and “leptosporangiate ferns or polypod ferns – the true ferns.” If your school is in a tropical climate, you may need to add a fourth box for the marattid ferns. They are huge plants that grow only in the tropics.

The spermatophyte box holds two boxes, the angiosperms or flowering plants, and the gymnosperms, the naked seed plants. The gymnosperm box holds four boxes – the cycads, the ginkgo, the conifers, and the gnetophytes. It is uncertain at present whether the gnetophytes belong in their own separate box or within another of the seed plant boxes. It is clear that they do not belong in the angiosperm box, however.

The angiosperms or flowering plants must have a big box. They make up about 90% of the plant kingdom. There are several boxes inside their box. A couple of very small boxes hold the first branches – the water lilies and the anise tree. Then there is a small box labeled “magnoliids,” a medium box labeled “monocots,” and a large box labeled “eudicots.” Three-quarters of the flowering plants are eudicots; about 22% are monocots.

All this can be imagined, but it will take quite some creativity to make physical containers that can actually hold an image and information about each of these branches of the plant kingdom. The information should include the lineages of the plant. For example: Sunflower lineages – embryophytes, tracheophytes, euphyllophytes, spermatophytes, angiosperms, eudicots. The text should also give some of the defining features – the derived traits – of each group.

If you need the illustrations or more information, see https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/montessori-botany-materials/products/the-plant-kingdom. This is a pdf of a PowerPoint for teacher education. You can print the images for use in your classroom. It has all the images you need except quillworts. Those lycophytes are rare, and the main reason to include them is that they are the closest relatives to the ancient Lepidodendron trees.

Please let me know if you need help or have questions on plant kingdom nesting boxes. If you want to have another set for the flowering plants, that’s a more involved story. It would be fun to do, however.

Happy plant explorations,

Priscilla


Why are updates so hard? October 28 2019, 0 Comments

Maria Montessori didn’t give guidance on updates. Why would she see the need to do this? The biology taught in her lifetime hardly changed.

How do you divide the eukaryotes? September 19 2019, 0 Comments

If I asked you how you would divide the eukaryotes into groups, what would you say? Many people would say protists, fungi, animals, and plants. This is the idea presented in Five (or Six) Kingdoms classification. There is a more enlightening way to divide the eukaryotes, one that students currently see in introductory college courses.

The DNA revolution and the development of systematics rather than plain classification have given us a new view. Systematics includes the relationships between taxonomic categories instead of listing them with no information about their shared ancestors. It is a young science that has produced many changes and will likely produce many more.

This is not to say that we don’t have useable information right now. The largest categories of eukaryotes have been defined, and they are called the eukaryotic supergroups. There are four of them presently, and so the eukaryotes can be divided into four groups. Here’s an introduction to the archaeplastida, SAR, excavata, and unikonts aka Amorphea.

Archaeplastida is the lineage that acquired the first chloroplast. Its name means “ancient plastids.” A plastid is a type of organelle in a eukaryotic cell, and the category includes the chloroplast, whose name means “green body.” The archaeplastida lineage includes red algae and green algae, along with the embryophytes or land plants, which evolved from a green alga. This lineage is the only one that incorporated an ancient cyanobacterium into its cells. The origin of the chloroplasts in other lineages is a more complicated story.

 

The SAR lineage is named for the three main branches within it, stramenopiles, alveolates, and rhizarians. These lineages were defined independently and then researchers gathered enough evidence to conclude that they share a common ancestor. The stramenopiles (aka chromists or heterokonts) include brown algae, golden algae, diatoms, and water molds. Alveolates include dinoflagellates, apicomplexans (parasites such as malaria), and ciliates. The rhizarians include foraminiferans and radiolarians, single cell organisms that build amazing outer shells called tests.

 

And where did these branches of life get their chloroplasts? It seems that chloroplasts are NOT easy to acquire. Apparently, it is easier to take one from another cell than to acquire one by eating a cyanobacterium. An ancestor of the stramenopiles and alveolates probably ate a red alga and kept its chloroplasts. Euglenas, which we meet below, got their chloroplasts from a green alga.

The third eukaryotic supergroup is the excavata, also called the excavates, but I see potential for confusion between the word as a noun vs. a verb. The lineage is named for a groove that looks like it has been excavated from the cells of some members. The excavata include the euglenas, which are free-living, and the trypanosomes, which are parasites. Other members of this group include the parasite Giardia and organisms that live in the guts of termites and help them break down cellulose. These have reduced mitochondria, so small that they were first described as lacking mitochondria.

 

I know you have been waiting for the last of the four supergroups, our own lineage, the unikonts (“single flagellum”) also known as the Amorphea (“having no form”). “Wait a minute,” you may be thinking, “we definitely have form.” The amoebas that belong to this lineage do not, however. The Amoebozoa lineage includes most of the slime molds or social amoebas as well as the single cell ones. Some of the latter build hard coverings (tests) for themselves. The other members of the unikonts are the fungus kingdom and the animal kingdom, which are sister kingdoms, having shared a common ancestor right before they branched off. There are other single cell organisms that are related to animals and fungi as well.

As you can see, the old protist kingdom had many different lineages of life shoe-horned into it, and the kingdoms that developed from its members were chopped off and boxed separately from it in the Five (or Six) Kingdoms scheme.

Why should you or your children learn about the supergroups of eukaryotes? It gives you a richer view of life and one that your children will see in their future studies. Will the names stay the same? Maybe, or maybe not, but these are the names in current college biology books, and it is worthwhile to learn about them and their members now.  

Enjoy your explorations of the living world!

Priscilla 


What impressions of plants are we giving? Part 3. Stems and leaves August 12 2019, 0 Comments

When we use the botany impressionistic charts to introduce children to plants, are we giving them correct information and the important ideas for them to know? That is the question I’ve been asking in this series. I’d like to call the charts “An overview of how plants work” or perhaps “Imagine how plants work." In English, the term “impressionistic” can imply that the material is hazy and unclear.

Several of these charts show people doing things to illustrate what the plant accomplishes. For instance, little men are shown anchoring roots like tent stakes. While some of this may help children understand plants, I find the real plant characteristics and real plant structures wonderful and inspiring as they are.

What do the traditional charts say about stems? One chart says that some stems are weak, and so they have to grow some structure to help them climb to reach the sunlight. This one has always driven me nuts. Nature doesn’t make weak organisms; natural selection acts against the poorly adapted. There is a better way to look at stems that climb. They have adaptations that allow them to grow upwards but don’t require them to develop a thick, rigid stem. Some kinds of vines have flexible woody stems. They are called lianas and they include grape vines and cat’s brier (Smilax). Lianas are common in tropical forests, and their stems certainly shouldn’t be called weak, as the photo shows.

The chart on stems that climb could also show children that plants do many things with their stems beyond the usual connecting roots and leaves. Stem adaptations include food storage (kohlrabi, potato) and water storage (cacti, other succulents). Two quite different looking specialized stems help grow new plants. Corms are short, thick stems that store food and propagate the plant (gladiolus, banana).  Without corms, we wouldn’t have bananas to eat because the domestic bananas are seedless. Runners are greatly elongated stems that enable the plant spread its offspring across the ground (strawberries). Thorns are short, pointed stems that discourage herbivores (hawthorn). Climbing roots, twining petioles, twining stems, and tendrils represent many ways that plants can fulfill their need to reach the sunlight.

The traditional botany charts include a depiction of photosynthesis in the leaf. Please make sure that you are giving children accurate ideas about photosynthesis. Hint: If your “chemical factory in the leaf” chart shows carbon monoxide being formed, it is giving false information. Why should we ask children to imagine false ideas when we can give them steps in the real process? The process of photosynthesis has quite a lot of details, and it must be greatly simplified for children, but if we are going to give them an idea of what goes on, it should be a valid framework to which they can add details later.

The “chemical factory in the leaf” should show that sunlight is used to break apart water molecules. It is the chlorophyll molecules that capture the Sun’s energy. The sunshine-requiring “light reactions” produce hydrogen ions and oxygen molecules. (They also produce high energy electrons and energy-rich molecules (ATP), but that is more chemistry than beginners need.) The hydrogen is joined to a carrier molecule, moved to a different area, and combined with small, carbon-containing molecules that have had a carbon dioxide attached.  A series of reactions produces sugar. Most charts simply show the hydrogen and carbon dioxide entering a structure of some sort and sugar coming out. That is likely to be enough information for the beginner.

Check the depiction of carbon dioxide on your charts. It is a linear molecule. There is a carbon in the center with an oxygen on either side. The oxygens are directly opposite one another – 180 degrees apart. It isn’t like water, which is v-shaped.

I’ve seen charts that show the sugars from photosynthesis being combined into starch, which does happen in plants. A little bit of starch is made in the chloroplast, and it acts as fuel during the nighttime. Starch, however, is NOT transported through the plant’s phloem. Starch is too big to go into solution. The transportable product of photosynthesis is the sugar sucrose (table sugar). The sucrose travels to leaves, stems, and roots, where it is converted to starch, which stores the chemical energy until it is needed. Sucrose is made from two 6-carbon sugars, so there is some processing of the product of photosynthesis before it is transported.

And then there is the chart that shows leaves worshiping the Sun. Do we worship the food on our plates? No, although a healthy serving of appreciation for the food that sustains us is a good thing. The real leaf story is so much more interesting. We can help children imagine how a plant positions its leaves and appreciate beautiful leaf arrangements. As for the leaves, they are arranging themselves to get maximum sun but minimum damage. Sunlight comes with heat, and leaves take action to avoid getting cooked. A leaf in the shade may be oriented horizontally. In full sunlight, the same species may turn its leaves on edge to protect them from heat. In deserts, many plants orient their leaves to catch less of the Sun’s hot rays.

I’ve always found much in nature that is inspiring and remarkable, and that’s without turning plants into people. When we learn about a natural phenomenon, there always seems to be more of the story. This alone can be inspiring to children. We can let them know that there is much more to the story of plants and how they work than we show on the botany charts.  


What impressions of plants are we giving? Part 2. Roots do more than we think. July 14 2019, 0 Comments

Last time, I wrote about the Montessori material called “Botany Impressionistic Charts.” I’ve looked at the meaning of the work “impressionistic,” and the only definition that seems to be relevant to the charts is “overview.” If I ever produce a version of this material, I will call it “An Overview of How Plants Work.”

In my previous article, I addressed the needs of plants, including the one so often omitted, the need for oxygen. This time, I’m looking at roots. Well, not literally looking at them other than on the weeds I’ve been pulling, but I’m reading about them.

Roots on the traditional charts are rather simple. They anchor the plant in the soil, take in water, and prevent soil erosion. This makes them seem about as interesting as tent stakes and drinking straws. There is a lot more to roots. I recently acquired a book called The Nature of Plants: an introduction to how plants work. The author, Craig N. Huegel, states “Roots may well be the most important plant organ and the least understood.” 

Roots are a last frontier for botany for good reason. They are hidden in the ground, and any attempt to see them disturbs them. In the past few years, there have been attempts to image root growth with MRI, CAT scans, and optical scanners in a tube that is buried in the ground amid the roots. Botanists are realizing that understanding roots is very important, both for the health of the plant and the planet. The ability of a plant to take up carbon dioxide depends on its roots.

There are some items of misinformation on the traditional “Botany Impressionistic Charts.”

  • Roots grow only to the drip line of the foliage. Wrong! If you have ever weeded a garden or dug up plants, you’ll know this one is a myth. At least in all but the most mature trees, the feeder roots extend about 2-3 times the diameter of the canopy according to Morton Arboretum, Colorado State University Extension, and other reliable sources. The root spread of herbaceous plants varies tremendously depending on species and environment, but I have seen many root maps of herbaceous plants that show roots extending well beyond the diameter of the foliage.
  • As a result of the spread of roots, the leaves of the plant do not direct rainwater within the dripline because the roots end there. In fact, I found only one example of leaves sending rainwater to roots, and that was desert rhubarb from Israel.
  • Roots seek water. This happens, but not like it is usually illustrated. Most of a tree’s roots grow in the top 6-24 inches (15-60 cm) of the soil. These laterals are the primary water absorbers. There aren’t many larger deep roots, and these don’t turn and head off to distant water. Hydrotropism occurs over millimeter distances, not meters. The part of the root that turns is the root cap, which means only the tip end of the root changes course. Botanists describe root foraging, in which roots grow out from the plant all directions and give rise to many small branches when they encounter pockets of water or minerals that they need. This would be a better picture to give children.

Useful concepts illustrated on the charts include:

  • Roots hold the soil. This is certainly an important function of roots. Another chart could go beyond this and show that roots improve the soil as well. They make channels in the soil and excrete substances that cause soil particles to clump. This helps water and oxygen penetrate the soil. They also excrete substances that help the plant solubilize and gather nutrients such as phosphorus and iron. These exudates feed the helpful soil bacteria near the roots as well.
  • Roots grow around obstacles. They seem to feel their way around the obstacle until their path is open.

Here are other important ideas about roots that are not illustrated on most sets of botany impressionistic charts.

  • The first root of young plants grows down and the shoot grows up (gravitropism). (Soon after the primary root forms, the lateral roots grow from it. In most monocots, the primary root is short-lived, and many adventitious roots grow from the base of the stem.)
  • Roots store the extra food that the leaves make. This is easy to see in a root like a carrot or beet, but even slender roots store food.
  • Roots have feeding partnerships with fungi (mycorrhizae) and bacteria. These microbial partners also help defend the root from harmful microorganisms. The majority of plants relies on mycorrhizae and grows poorly or not at all without them. Children need to know about this, the most wide-spread symbiosis on Earth.
  • Roots can be adapted to serve other functions. Examples include prop roots, climbing roots, parasitic roots (haustoria), and pneumatophores.

I encourage you to give children an accurate, exciting view of roots. There is plenty of mystery and discoveries to be made about the root system. Here is another book that can help you, How Plants Work: The science behind the amazing things plant do by Linda Chalker-Scott.

Happy botany studies!

Priscilla


What impressions of plants are we giving? Part 1. The needs of the plant. June 12 2019, 2 Comments

I have been looking at these charts and asking myself what else children today need to know about plants, and whether everything shown on the original charts is still considered valid. 

Moving past zoology and botany April 30 2019, 0 Comments

Normally, I write about elementary or secondary education in my blog. In this one, I’m addressing an issue that starts in early childhood, and it affects the way children view the living world in their later studies.

Traditionally, Montessori life science (biology) was divided into zoology and botany. The divide began when young children sorted pictures into animals vs. plants. This exercise fit well with the two kingdom approach to classifying the living world. I certainly hope that Montessori teachers no longer use two kingdoms. Biologists began moving away from two kingdoms in the mid-1800s, although it took a hundred years and major advances in biochemistry and microscopy to complete the break. We can give children a more useful overview of the living world than simply animals and plants.

It is time to quit thinking of life science as zoology or botany, or structuring our teaching albums (manuals) this way. When we offer only two categories for living things, children miss much of the living world. While young children are not ready for lots of details, they can sort pictures of living things into three categories, the third being “Other living things.” This tells them that there are organisms that are neither plants nor animals, and it keeps the door open for further learning. Mushrooms, lichens, and kelp are examples of macroscopic organisms that fit under the “Other” heading.

I started my work to bring current science concepts and content to teachers over 20 years ago. My first conference workshop was about the Five Kingdom classification. I spent nearly a decade helping teachers move from two kingdoms to five kingdoms. Then I had to switch gears again as expanding knowledge (via DNA and RNA) of the relationships between living things led to new concepts of classification, principally the Tree of Life and phylogenetics. My book, Kingdoms of Life Connected: A Teacher’s Guide to the Tree of Life, has learning activities and resources for exploring all the branches of life and viruses, too.

The microscopic living world is more abstract and harder to observe than plants and animals, but that does not mean that children shouldn’t know about it. They can learn that microorganisms help plants grow, recycle nutrients, and make foods like yogurt and cheese possible. The disease-causing microorganisms are the ones that we experience most directly, and these get the most attention, but children need to understand the vital importance of microorganisms to all ecosystems.

The book, Tiny Creatures, by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton (2014) is a valuable resource for introducing young children to the microscopic world. These authors have a second book (2017), Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth, which supports a more inclusive view of life. The Invisible ABCs by Rodney P. Anderson (2006) sounds like it would be for early childhood, but it looks better for beginning elementary. This publication from the American Society for Microbiology has accurate information and good images of the organisms. Its breezy style makes this abstract world more interesting.

Moving past botany and zoology also means considering more than biological classification. It means thinking about the ecosystems, environments, and interactions of life, the structures of life, and the evolutionary history of organisms. Elementary children will have a better idea of the importance of microorganisms after they read Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm (2012). This book uses the term “plants” for the ocean’s protists that perform photosynthesis, even though many are not on the green algae-plant lineage. More importantly, it shows children the microbial underpinnings of the ocean ecosystem.  

In elementary life science studies, there will be times to focus on the animals or the plants, but children will have a better perspective if they start with an introduction to the whole Tree of Life and learn to use this conceptual framework. As children develop their abstract thinking, they are likely to be interested in exploring all the branches of life. They will need good tools, such as magnifiers and microscopes, to help them observe the protists and prokaryotes. They also need appropriate search terms for finding resources they can read and understand.

I hope you and your children enjoy studying the greater living world.

Priscilla