Creating a learning habitat for the climate scientists of tomorrow

A project highlighting the importance of pollinators and plant growth has inspired a group of schoolchildren to engage in early scientific endeavours.

Dr Teresa Penfield, Genes in the Environment (GEN) Project Manager at the John Innes Centre, reports about the project.

“Understanding how crops are pollinated and the environmental factors which influence successful pollination are important questions in plant biology and something that we are very interested in within the GEN research programme at the John Innes Centre. 

Ensuring that the next generation of scientists is also excited by these biological questions is hugely important. We need enough trained scientists in the future to help develop new crops with high yields, that can grow with minimum inputs and which are resilient to the environmental challenges posed by climate change.   

Last year, we worked with Town Close School, in Norwich, supported by a Royal Society Partnership Grant as part of the Tomorrow’s Climate Scientists Programme. 

Pupils aged 3 – 13 from across the school undertook a research project we designed for them to find out how environmental variables influenced plant growth.  Through this project they developed new knowledge and skills. including how to germinate and grow plants from seed and how to make observations and record weather variables such as light and temperature.

The children learnt that these two components of the environment are particularly important for healthy crop growth. 

This year, in an extension to this project, 59 Year 2 pupils used the knowledge, skills and equipment they had gained as part of the Tomorrow’s Climate Scientists project to find out more about plant pollinators and floral biology. 

They recorded sunlight measurements around their school to identify the brightest places for plants to grow and then grew a range of crops including oilseed rape, strawberry and the cover crop phacelia. They then monitored the plants for plant pollinators. 

I heard from the children about the pollinating insects they had seen on their plants, including several species of bees, and some of the life-cycle stages they had seen for the large white butterfly.  I was able to link this with our research on identifying the scents involved in insect attraction for pollination and how we hope that our research might help to improve seed formation of the oilseed rape plant. 

The children had also encountered parasitic wasps which they had discovered were living in some of the great white butterfly caterpillars and we talked about the wonders of evolution. 

On a visit to the school, I helped students with their floral dissections and drawings and talked to them about flower development and the work we do at the John Innes Centre to understand the genetics behind this process.  We looked at developing pea seeds under their new microscope and discussed the importance of pea as a high protein crop and the research we are starting in the GEN research programme. 

I was also lucky enough to accompany the school on a visit to Honingham Thorpe Farm where the children took part in a walk and were able to see a range of crops including oilseed rape, onions and cereals growing in the field. 

We looked at the biodiversity measures in place around the farm, including hedgerows and unmown areas, and explained the importance of these measures for pollinating insects.  Their science project on pollinators had enabled them to ask many interesting and sometimes challenging questions about crop life cycles, flowering, climate change and pests which I was able to help answer. 

I was impressed by the children’s knowledge of floral biology and pollination and by their enthusiasm and excitement for understanding everything that they sawBy the end of this year’s project, all the children felt that they understood some of what was involved in being a scientists with over half interested in becoming a scientist one day. “

You can find out more about the “We are Tomorrow’s Climate Scientists’ project by watching the video made by the year 2 pupils of Town Close School, Norwich.