The TREE of plant science education

Aurora Levesley is the Project Officer for the Gatsby Plant Science TREE. The TREE grew out of the Gatsby Plant Science Summer Schools as a means of sharing the valuable resources produced for and during the Schools. Here she discusses the value of the TREE’s online lectures, which are the subject of a current New Phytologist paper. 

David Beerling at the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School
David Beerling gives a lecture at the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School. This is one of many lectures that have been edited for interactive online delivery and shared on the Plant Science TREE.

The Plant Science TREE is a free online central repository of plant science educational resources. More than 90 research academics and publishers have contributed over 2000 resources, including online research lectures, research-led lecture slides, practicals, video clips and other resources on topical plant science. It was developed by the University of Leeds with funding from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and is currently used by scientists, educators and students from over 320 institutes worldwide.

Many students enter biological sciences courses with little interest in or knowledge of plants, and engaging students with plant science early in their studies is arguably an important step in reversing the decline in uptake of this vulnerable yet strategically important subject linked to food security and other globally important issues. Prof Alison Baker of the Centre for Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds, says of the TREE: “The aim is to put a tool in the hands of educators that will engage students in plant science and research, especially where expertise is becoming limited.”

Our recent study, published in New Phytologist, showed the online research lectures that form a large part of the TREE successfully engage undergraduates with plant science (Levesley et al 2014, New Phytologist Early View).

In this study, undergraduates from four UK universities were provided with links to online research lectures as part of their course. The lectures, filmed at the Gatsby Plant Science summer schools, were given by research leaders but pitched at a level to engage undergraduates and provided a first-hand insight into how discoveries are made and science is carried out.

Not only were the online lectures successful in engaging students with plant science and research in general, but students were unanimous in the opinion that they were a good way to learn about a subject. Interestingly the study also showed that the online viewing experience was comparable to watching the research lectures live.

These online undergraduate research lectures are freely available through the Plant Science TREE. Our study shows they represent a valuable plant science education tool to help lecturers and teachers introduce cutting-edge research examples that address globally relevant applied initiatives – as well as curiosity-driven research – to their students. As such they have the potential to change student attitudes to plant science, engage students in research and are able to reach a large and wide global student audience.

The full reference for the Plant Science TREE paper is: Levesley A, Paxton S, Collins R, Baker A and Knight CD. “Engaging students with plant science: the Plant Science TREE”, New Phytologist, published online ahead of print in June 2014.


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