HHMI professor Richard M. Amasino, a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, envisions whole classrooms of green thumbs. He sees students, from elementary school to college, breeding inexpensive and easy-to-grow plants to study flower development, plant size, and other basic processes. Amasino is working to adapt fast-flowering cabbages into a series of genetics lessons for students of different ages.
“If you really want kids to get it, they need to see genetics in action, without fancy equipment,” says Amasino. “They need to see interesting mutations that not only look cool, but also can be studied further. But while science students dissect frogs to understand anatomy or maybe worms to study development, how can they easily learn about genetics? Arabidopsis and Drosophila are challenging for most educators to use.”
Developing a classroom model of genetics from scratch is a tall order. Amasino is recruiting teams of undergraduates and his own lab members to dip seeds into mutation-causing solutions, hand-pollinate and water thousands of experimental plants, and monitor future generations of the plants to identify interesting variants. The teams will also help develop hands-on class activities to show K–12 students how genes pass from one generation to the next.
“My ultimate goal is to fi nd a range of experiments so that advanced students could grow generations of plants, say, while third-graders breed simple mutants,” Amasino says. “The beauty of this project is that even if we produce just a handful of mutants, we’ll be ready to start developing classroom exercises.”
Photo: Brian Ebner/AP, ©HHMI