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I loved playing with kaleideoscopes when I was (much) younger, but the images they produce have nothing on what Victorian microscopists achieved using diatoms.

Diatoms are single-celled photosynthetic organisms, and one of the things that really makes them stand out it the variety & beauty of their cell walls, which contain a very high proportion of silica: as the Tree of Life site says, they basically live in glass boxes. Collectively the diatoms make up one of the largest taxa on earth, one with considerable ecological significance: at about 40% of marine primary production, they produce >20% of our oxygen.

But back to their cell walls. Apparently, Victorian scientists were big on arranging these little organisms in complex patterns that derived much of their beauty from the cell walls found in different species. While the actual details of what they did weren't recorded, Neatorama describes the work of Klaus Kemp, who has rediscovered their art & generated some stunning images of his own.

Images like this: 

(Image credit: Klaus Kemp)

And watch the video here. This is wonderfully skilful work, & so beautiful, and I'll share it with my students in next year's classes.

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A couple of years ago I spent a lovely afternoon in the huge domed glasshouses of Singapore's "Gardens on the Bay". The 'cloud forest' was my favourite - both for the concept & for the wonderful range of epiphytes on show there.

Singapore cloud forest mountain.jpg

So you'll understand that I enjoyed reading about it again on this blog, written for the New Zealand Epiphyte Network. Anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand's native plants should drop by the site. And maybe sign up to be part of their citizen science project while you're there?

Go on, you know you want to :)

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For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

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The new semester kicks off tomorrow & right now I'm adding resources to my first-year bio moodle page & running through the powerpoints for the week's lectures. After a couple of introductory sessions we're diving into the section of the class that focuses on plants, and I'm giving some serious thought to how I present that material given that it looks like more than half the class didn't study the relevant year 12 Achievement Standard. 

So among other things I've looked around for some engaging short videos on plant biology, and I found this one (part of what looks like a great sequence, which I've bookmarked for future use): 

OK, I know the humour might not appeal to everyone, & he does speak rather fast at times, but the presenter's engaging, the graphics are good & the key points are emphasised and repeated - a nice little primer for my class to watch for homework as preparation for making sense of plants.

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For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest - a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there's always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I'm going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

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The image below is of the bee orchid, Ophrys apifera. I know I'm 'seeing' something - the 'face' - that isn't really there (an example of pareidolia), but still, that's one happy-looking flower!

File:Ophrys apifera (flower).jpg

Image courtesy of Hans Hillewaert, from wikimedia.

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Sexual reproduction in flowering plants is often mediated by the birds & the bees (& other animal agents), but up until now the life cycle has appeared much simpler in plants like the mosses. Until fairly recently it was generally accepted that moss sex was a case of 'just add water': this released sperm from the male plants which could then swim in the film of water to where the female plants held their eggs. Of necessity this would mean that sperm dispersal could be only over quite short distances, of a few centimetres at most.

However, Todd Rosensteil and his colleagues (2012) decided to confirm the hypothesis that arthropods known as springtails could be involved in transferring sperm between male and female mosses. (Springtails and mosses evolved at the same time, during the Ordovician period.) They posed a number of questions: were springtails really acting as go-betweens in moss sex? If the answer was 'yes', how did the moss plants attract their little helpers? And, were the springtails important only if there was not much water around?


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singapore conservatory dome.jpgAfter goggling (a mixture of gobsmacked & ogling) the supertrees, our little party of escapees from the day's official IBO program made our way into the Flower Dome, the first of the two great conservatories in Singapore's Gardens in the Bay. Cue more 'oh, wow!' moments as the scale of the building became apparent - this is what it looks like once you're through the doors (& into the wondrous coolness of the huge space):

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This is a post I first wrote for Talking Teaching - but hey! it's about teaching science!

Today's class was a real experiment for me, & although I try lots of different things in my classes, it was also a step outside my normal comfort zone. (But hey! life would be a bit boring if we always stayed safely inside that zone!) Why? Because I put into practice an idea I stole from my friend & colleague Kevin Gould (who also very kindly let me use the resources he'd developed): today was "design-a-plant" day, & probably to anyone looking into the lecture theatre during the first 30 minutes or so it would have looked as if chaos definitely ruled.

Last Friday I gave everyone an information sheet: descriptions of the features of leaf, stem & root that you might see in plants adapted to different environments. Today I trotted off to the lecture room with a box full of overhead transparency sheets, overhead pens, & printed scenarios (descriptions of a particular environment). The lecture theatre was already full – everyone had come ahead of time! This definitely wasn’t usual (it’s not that they normally trickle in late, but we're talking seriouslyearly); obviously they were expecting something special. Gulp.

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 The intrepid reporters from Number 8 Network e-mailed the other day. "What are you reading?" they asked; "after all, it's the holidays & you must have heaps of time to put your nose in a book." Which is sort of right, it is the Christmas/New Year break, but the days just seem to fly by when you're doing not very much at all.

However, as it happens I'm working my way through several books at the moment, so I was able to oblige.

First up is Skulls, by Simon Winchester. Strictly speaking it's not actually a book but an interactive iPad app, based on the enormous personal collection of Alan Dudley. I bought it because I find skulls fascinating (though not so obsessively fascinating as I think they must be for a collector of same) & the blurb at the app store offered me the ability to zoom in, out & around a whole bunch of bony brain protectors. This, I figured, would be quite fun & could also be a useful teaching tool (I'm looking forward to showing it to a colleague who teaches 3rd-year zoology). 

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