Plant Doctors at the Big Bang Fair

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Published on: March 19, 2014

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On Friday I went to the NEC in Birmingham to join an intrepid team of plant scientists running activities on an exhibit at the free national science, technology and engineering event the Big Bang Fair. The stand was organised and funded by the British Society of Plant Pathology and the John Innes Centre.

The theme of the exhibit was Plant Doctors. Visitors learned about plant diseases and were encouraged to think about a world without plant doctors – what effects would uncontrolled plant diseases have on our air quality and food supply?

There were four activities on the stand, aimed at different age groups.

The main event was the Plant Doctors activity, where children and young people could don a white coat and clipboard and learn to diagnose a bacterial, fungal or viral plant disease. In my experience the particularly gruesome crown gall tumour (just like the black death!) went down well, but some groups were fascinated by the spores on the bean rust pustules (little mushrooms), which we showed them down the microscope.

At the Polling Station, adults and young people discussed the benefits and drawbacks of bio-control, pesticides and GM approaches to controlling plant pathogens. Older Plant Doctors were also invited to vote on how best to treat the plant diseases. I didn’t spend much time on this activity, but it seemed to keep some groups very engaged. It was certainly an effective way of talking about the importance of innovation in plant science.

Make a Plant Attacker was a craft activity for younger children. When I was manning this station, it was a bit hit-and-miss. Some children built terrifyingly creative plant attackers, while others were more interested in making bracelets out of pipe cleaners. This may reflect more on my non-existent experience of dealing with small children than the activity (or the child) itself! By the end of the day, we’d collected enough scary models to make any plant shake in its roots. I’m sure Make a Plant Attacker would work brilliantly and be very informative as a classroom activity.

The fourth activity focused on Ash Dieback, the fungal disease that made the news in 2012 and 2013. The activity was fun and simple, and the accompanying explanation about Ash Dieback, its life cycle and distribution by wind-blown spores, was quick and easy. We made towers from plastic cups (spores) and the kids knocked them down with an airzooka (the wind).

I had a fun but exhausting day, and I’m sure we raised interest in plant science in some young scientists. I wonder if it would be more helpful to deliver the same messages to different groups – politicians, investors, university Pro-vice Chancellors – who can make a real difference to the quality, visibility and availability of plant science, horticultural, and agricultural jobs. But who knows? Maybe a future prime minister stopped by the BSPP/JIC exhibit at the Big Bang Fair!

The Make a Plant Attacker and Plant Doctors activities are on the British Society of Plant Pathology outreach page. The John Innes Centre and researchers at Norwich Research Park are involved in a number of educational activities.

Top image credits from left to right: 1. A volunteer and young people at the exhibit by @IFRScience. 2. Bean rust fungus by Charis Cook  Bottom image: Crown gall by Charis Cook

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