A second-year biology course is getting students to swap the microscope for the magnifying glass to crack the case of mysterious mutant plants.
The course, Plants: Genes to Environment, run by Associate Professor Adrienne Nicotra and Drs Gonzalo Estavillo, Ulrike Mathesius and Beth Beckmann from the Research School of Biology, has won a citation for outstanding contribution to student learning from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC).
The award, one of 210 given nationally by ALTC in 2011, recognises the research-led learning methods used in the course and its unique ‘plant detectives’ project. Dr Nicotra said that as plant detectives, students are called upon to determine the effects of a genetic mutation on the shape, structure and growth of a plant in a range of environments.
“The students are encouraged to approach the topic as a puzzle,” she said. “They are given seeds of ‘normal’ and mutant plants and the tools they need to figure out what the impact of the mutation is.
“Only one member of the teaching team knows what the mutants are and the students are marked not on whether they ‘get it right’ but on how they tackle the problem and their interpretation of their results.
“It’s real science and we aim to convey the excitement of that science to students.”
Dr Nicotra added that winning the ALTC award was a real honour for her and her teaching colleagues.
“Our method involves two exciting innovations that encourage a deeper approach to learning science,” she said.
“We use a highly structured interactive lecture format where students take responsibility for their own learning and play a large role in determining the direction and emphasis of the lectures.
“We pair that with our plant detectives project in which the students get to grapple with the tools used by contemporary plant scientists and to apply the concepts they’ve learned while solving the riddle of identifying a plant mutation.”
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