Researchers view plants on newly installed racks in science classroom

Science Scene: Sharing STEM ‘right on our doorstep’

June 25, 2019

Supported by a grant from the NSF to Elizabeth Vierling, Amherst Regional High School science teachers are designing new curriculum involving hands-on experiments with plants.

The grant provided funds to purchase four sets of racks with lighting, light meters, and stocks of pots and growth medium to make the experiments possible. The grant will also pay for three teachers to spend eight days this summer to continue to develop curriculum. This project extends work with the Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS), where the teachers are using the system for the second year, and will continue to develop new inquiry-based classroom activities with this grant support. 

Elizabeth Vierling 

Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Director of the Plant Biology Graduate Program 


How did this project get initiated? 

The best way to introduce students to plant biology is to get them growing plants and for them to experience the many different responses plants have to their environment. Students really connect with watching plants grow, and that helps them begin to understand the different parts of plants and how they work. 

Every NSF grant includes a section for developing activities that will have “broader impacts” in the community or society at large, and NSF also provides the opportunity to request funds to support these activities. I have a long-standing interest in quality education, and was interested in making better connections between UMass and the Amherst Regional School system, so I built activities with the Amherst school system into my NSF grant “Linking Reactive Nitrogen Metabolism and Redox Homeostasis in Plants.” Despite the perception that Amherst is a wealthy town filled with honors students, the Amherst public school system is very diverse, and unfortunately there is a large achievement gap in the student population. Therefore, it seemed very worthwhile to find ways to share campus resources in STEM with a school system right on our doorstep. 

With my NSF support, four years ago I began working with Elliott Kelly, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science (and sometimes math) in the middle school. In his first summer, he spent five weeks in the lab participating in basic molecular biology research and experiencing how research is designed and performed in an academic laboratory.  

Research has shown that providing students with a variety of learning opportunities, including hands-on experiences can help to decrease the achievement gap between diverse students. So Elliott and I were both interested to determine how he could bring the experience of scientific thinking to his 7th and 8th grade classrooms with hands-on activities.  

A students hand is shown with experiment papers, seeds, petri dish, and other plant experiment supplies

This led to a second summer, during which Elliott spent five weeks in the lab experimenting to develop new lesson plans using plants as study organisms. With the demands on teachers’ time during the school year, it is not possible to develop and test new curriculum ideas, and NSF stipend support was key to enabling Elliott’s effort. Plants are excellent for demonstrating many basic principles in biology, but the school needed better ways to grow plants. An important part of Elliott’s summer was designing and assembling a mobile lighted shelving unit to use for plant experiments, made from parts easily purchased online from different vendors. The Vierling Lab grant money purchased three units for ARMS, and Elliott trained other teachers in his department on the experiments he had designed for using the units. Elliott and his co-teachers have found the units so effective that we ordered components for three more systems so that both the 7th and 8th graders can perform plant experiments.   

You’ve recently expanded the program to the high school as well. How did that come about? 

Upon receiving a second NSF grant to continue my lab’s research (“Regulating Nitric Oxide Homeostasis and its Impact on Plant Growth and Reproduction”), I wanted to expand my support of the local schools, and I reached out to the Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) to see what would benefit their curriculum, possibly including units similar to Kelly's system. Their current practice for growing plants involved propping up fluorescent lights on stacks of textbooks, which was inconvenient and inflexible, and took up all of the lab bench areas.   

After a quick visit with Kelly at ARMS, the ARHS Science department faculty gladly accepted the offer to purchase the components for four more mobile units and within weeks of receiving and assembling the materials, AP Environmental Science and the Biology classes began using the units for experimentation. This summer the Vierling Lab is providing stipends for several teachers to continue curriculum development. Elliott and Jodi Stevens from ARMS will develop new curriculum around photosynthesis, two high school teachers will develop experiments for plant growth work, and the lab will host two high school teachers to design a lab using a PCR machine that was purchased to loan to Amherst and other schools.  

What kinds of experiments are the teachers doing with their students? 

Last summer Kelly and fellow teacher Jodi Stevens wrote up several different experiments, including tests of phototropism and root growth. This summer they will continue to expand on their lesson portfolio, focusing more on photosynthesis, with the help of two newly purchased, hand-held leaf fluorescence detectors that can be easily used to measure photosynthesis in many different plants. The lesson plans, along with details on the construction of the plant growth shelving units are made public for others to use. 

The ARHS teachers will be developing experiments with plant growth that address the AP Biology and AP Environmental Science Curriculum standards, as well as other aspects of state STEM curriculum requirements. In my lab the teachers will test how best to amplify DNA using the polymerase chain reaction to demonstrate principles of genetics and applications in forensic science. 

One component of the University's mission is to "conduct programs of research and public service that advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth." Do you see this project as part of that mission? 

UMass is an incredible resource for our surrounding communities, including area primary and secondary schools. This collaboration is certainly an excellent example of how a researcher can have an impact on the local school population. The Amherst schools are lucky to have such motivated teachers who appreciate ongoing professional development, and I am happy to be able to provide the middle school and high school science departments with additional resources they need to further develop their curriculum and labs. I’m thankful for the enthusiasm and creativity of Elliott Kelly in this ongoing project. He came up with clever approaches to optimize the growth and care of plants in the classroom. 

As teachers gain experience with different experimental protocols and how successful they are with students, the lessons developed can be shared on the internet and at national teacher and other professional society conferences. Amherst teachers can run workshops to train other teachers in how best to use plants in hand-on experiments that provide students with experience in scientific thinking and analysis. 

Teachers are able to meet the new state and national science standards for STEM teaching, and can demystify the scientific process for their students by directly engaging them in real experiments and quantitative analysis. With systems in place in both Amherst Middle School and now the High School, activities can reinforce principles of research and data evaluation over multiple years, increasing the impact for students. 

Read on: 
Middle School Resources at Vierling Lab website
Read more Science Scene stories

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UMass Amherst or the College of Natural Sciences. 
Photos: Rebecca Fricke

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