Researchers at Edge Hill University have discovered why fewer students are choosing to study the biology of plants and are calling for changes to the curriculum to address ‘plant blindness’ to protect this much needed profession.
With climate change, food security and the natural world regularly in the spotlight, academics have been intrigued as to why today’s students are showing less of an interest in plant sciences and choosing to focus instead on human and animal biology, as it is plant scientists who can answer many global challenges.
Plant Science Lecturer Dr Sven Batke has been investigating this trend and uncovered that a phenomenon called ‘plant blindness’, whereby people fail to notice the plants in the environment around them, has become an increasing issue in younger adults.
Dr Batke said: “During my years of teaching biology and botany courses I have found less and less students want to learn about plants. The average age of plant science experts in the UK is moving increasingly towards retirement and only 5% are below the age of 30.”
“I wanted to understand why this was the case, so I decided to undertake some research into plant blindness. I wondered if this is what is affecting biology students and disconnecting them from plants.”
Dr Batke put together a multi-disciplinary team with Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow Dr John Bostock, Dr Thom Dallimore from Biology and support from Dr Damien Litchfield from the psychology department. Together they collaborated to find out what Edge Hill’s biology students thought about plants, whether they noticed them in the environment and what they had previously been taught about plant sciences.
Dr Batke was surprised by what he discovered.
“We showed pictures to students of landscapes where in some cases both humans, animals and plants were present. In one case they were shown a picture of a lion in a tree,” he explained. “While all of them noted the lion very few mentioned the tree it was in or the surrounding grassland. It was clear that plant blindness was affecting them.”
Spurred on by these results Dr Batke asked his students about their experiences of plants. He found that many thought the subject matter taught in schools was dull, being mainly focused on photosynthesis, and that they had no idea of the range of exciting career opportunities associated with plant science and botany. Furthermore, students who were taught the least about plants were also the most blind to plants.
Dr Batke also found that most students developed a strong interest towards when taught plant related content at university. He said that “It was interesting to see that by nurturing the relationship towards plants at university, students are more likely to chose modules related to plants.”
To make young people more plant aware, Dr Batke suggests changing the way children are taught about plants in schools by emphasising practical applications such as medicines, genetically modified crops and hands-on experiences in plant biology. He also recommends making information about plant sciences incredibly promising career prospects more available.
Edge Hill’s biology courses cover a range of plant related subjects including the genetic engineering of crops, producing cures for diseases and bringing back long extinct species. To find out more about the courses on offer visit www.edgehill.ac.uk/biology/courses/undergraduate/.