Getting Plants into Different Areas of Biology

The solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems (e.g., climate change, sustainability, biodiversity loss, feeding a growing human population) will, at least in part, come from plant scientists. We need more plant scientists and a more plant science literate society. And yet, the Royal Society of Biology’s ‘Evolving 5-19 biology: recommendations and framework for 5-19 biology curricula’ [1] states that there is evidence of zoocentrism in pupils, teachers, and textbooks. They also state that ‘there have been high-level calls for the increased inclusion of plant-related learning opportunities in all levels of the biology curriculum to help overcome ‘plant blindness’…’ and one of their recommendations is ‘The biology curriculum should provide pupils of all ages with ample opportunities to learn about plants and other organisms, in addition to humans and other animals’ (Recommendation 5).

As well as its role in getting more plant scientists and plant science literate people, we believe that embedding plants throughout biology makes good educational sense and better ‘all round’ biologists. Here we present work by Chris Graham, seconded teacher to SAPS, demonstrating how plants can be featured in teaching all aspects of biology.


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Getting plants into your biology teaching


Embedding plants throughout biology helps to:

  • Reduce compartmentalisation of knowledge within biology and help students make cross topic links
  • Highlight general principles in biology by showing they have wide applicability
  • Link learning to what students experience in their lives outside of lessons (e.g., the nature they see around them, the food they eat, the plant products they interact with)

Teachers need to be ‘plant proud’ for the benefit of their students, society, and the whole of humanity.


STEM Spotlight Session

You can hear Chris talking more about this project and how including plants across biology teaching supports your students in a STEM Spotlight session for the STEM Community website.

To watch more STEM Spotlight sessions or to add comments to Chris’ video follow the steps below:

  1. Join STEM Learning and the STEM Community, both free of charge.
  2. Join the specific STEM Spotlight community page.
  3. Find Chris’ STEM Spotlight session (Episode 6) via the community page or follow this link to watch the video.*

* If you follow this link and get a message saying you do not have permission to view the post, make sure you have completed step 2.


Using the document/spreadsheet

This document aims to be a searchable collection of ideas for using plants in the teaching of all aspects of biology. It will continue to grow as we gather more ideas and link to more resources (please share your ideas with us at Feel free to download the document to use for your own purposes but do pop back and check for updates from time to time.

Some ideas are just to spark an idea for you to run with whilst others have links to ‘ready to go’ resources. 

Here are some examples of how suggestions in the document/spreadsheet can support the choices you make in your teaching.


Convergent evolution
If you’re looking for examples of convergent evolution you’ll find a link to a scientific paper about the evolution of caffeine production in a variety of plants including tea, coffee and chocolate. We make use of the caffeine as a stimulant but that’s not why it evolved in plants. For them, caffeine production has evolved due to its various roles in plant defense and pollination. Using this example in your teaching might inspire some students to discuss the idea of convergent evolution with family or friends when they’re in a group where tea, coffee or chocolate are being consumed. If you wanted to take it further than just using the example, there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how we know that caffeine production has evolved separately in these 3 plants even though the caffeine molecule they each make is identical. The answer, as the paper explains, is due to the caffeine being produced by different metabolic pathways in different species. Where the same metabolic pathway is used, the enzymes that catalyse the reactions have evolved from different enzymes in different species.

If you want to get your students thinking about the importance of enzymes when learning about the factors that affect the rate of enzyme-controlled reactions you’ll find a resource called ‘Engage your students with enzymes’. You can use some of the ideas in this resource to enrich an introduction you give to the enzymes topic . If you have more lesson time available, you can use the full resource pack to get students deeply exploring the idea that enzymes are more than just catalysts through an activity to design a self-organising system.


Protein production and secretion
Looking for another example of protein trafficking to add to the insulin production one? Searching for ‘Protein trafficking’ gives you two ideas that you could develop into a resource or just use to add context in lessons. One example is amylase secretion in germinating seeds (both important for plant growth and the brewing process) and the other is about a protein that is part of the glue that ivy uses to stick to surfaces as it climbs. Using the ivy example may prompt some students to recall the processes learnt in lessons when they see ivy outside of lessons.

If you’re looking for ideas for enhancing the teaching of microscopy, this section of the spreadsheet suggests a variety of preparations to look at. This includes onion epidermis to emphasise the importance of a single layer of cells, starch grains in potatoes to see the value of staining, cytoplasmic streaming in pondweed, and the stunning guard cells and lower epidermis of Trandescantia zebrina. All these preparations and more can be used to teach microscopy use, calibrating and measuring, and slide preparation.

Navigating the document/spreadsheet

Each row in the document is an idea for using plants in biology teaching. There are three columns that categorise biology from broad themes down into more narrow topics. These categories are not a suggestion of how biology teaching should be arranged, they are just there to help you find ideas for areas you’re interested in, whether these areas are quite broad or very specific.

You can filter by the ‘concepts’, ‘topics’ or ‘sections’ columns to target the list of ideas to the parts of biology in which you are looking for inspiration. Or you can use the ‘Find’ function (Ctrl + F) to find cells that contain a word of interest.

Below are two examples of how the document might be used:

  • If you’re planning the teaching of a particular topic and want to get ideas for how you might make some links to plants you can use the filter function. Click on the filter arrow in the headings of the ‘concepts’, ‘topics’ and ‘sections’ columns in turn until you find your topic. Click on the ‘Select all’ tick of that filter menu to deselect all the options and then click on the box next to the name of your topic. Then click ‘Apply’. You should then see all the ideas relevant to your topic.
  • If you’re not sure of a topic but you want to look for ideas linked to a particular word or phrase then you could use the ‘Find’ function. Click anywhere on the document (make sure that no filters are still applied so you’re able to search the whole document) and then press the ‘Ctrl’ and ‘F’ keys together. Type in your word or phrase and then click the ‘Find next’ button. This will highlight a cell with your word or phrase in it and indicate that the row that cell is in might contain an idea of interest to you. Keep clicking the ‘Find next’ button to find further cases of your word or phrase in the document. Eventually it will cycle back round to the first cell that had been identified, at which point you have seen all the cases of your word or phrase in the document.



[1] Royal Society of Biology – ‘Evolving 5-19 biology: recommendations and framework for 5-19 biology curricula’ 

Download the document

Getting plants into your biology teaching

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