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Wisconsin Fast Plants® and Science and Engineering Practices

student in lab setting with Wisonson Fast Plants®

Hedi Baxter Lauffer, PhD
Director, Teaching & Learning
Wisconsin Fast Plants Program
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Consider the many similarities between what scientists and engineers do to figure out answers to their questions and what students in science classrooms can do to learn science concepts. In both contexts, questions or problems can be the driver for gathering and evaluating information that serves as evidence for a logical answer or solution.

Although there are also similarities with how we seek answers and solutions in our everyday lives, there can be big differences in what counts as sound evidence in science and engineering and the roles that opinions and beliefs play. Therefore, the Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS) distill and describe 8 explicit science and engineering practices as targets for science teaching and learning. Specifically, referring to A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas by the National Research Council (NRC), the NGSS states:

"The Framework specifies that each performance expectation must combine a relevant practice of science or engineering, with a core disciplinary idea and crosscutting concept, appropriate for students of the designated grade level." (NGSS Lead States 2013, 382)

Together, the NGSS practices form a model of the essential features associated with science and engineering—features that all students need to understand and be able to do. Through engaging with and learning to use these essential features of the practices, the national goal is to build a scientifically literate citizenry and inspire some students to become scientists or engineers.

Life sciences and the NGSS

Life sciences can be challenging for engaging learners in science and engineering practices, because many anchoring life science phenomena are hard to replicate in a classroom. Similarly, in the science laboratory, it can be challenging to replicate life processes for study. In both cases, the answer can be to use a model organism that thrives in the confines of a laboratory or classroom for use in experimentation and observations. In fact, the use of model organisms is a common practice in science and engineering. Model organisms used by biologists, ecologists, NASA engineers, and others include research mice and rats, fruit flies, and Brassica rapa—also known as Wisconsin Fast Plants®.

Fast Plants® exemplify the traits of a useful model organism. Typically, model organisms can thrive in relatively small spaces and have a quick enough life cycle that they facilitate the study of multiple generations. As such, Fast Plants® were originally developed (and their breeding is continued) by researchers at the University of Wisconsin—Madison to support agriculture scientists. As a model organism, many teachers find that these plants effectively engage students in genuine science inquiry within classroom constraints. The following practices (NGSS Lead States 2013, 384-398), shared along with their relevant Disciplinary Core Ideas, provide examples for doing just that.

Practice 1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Scientifically literate citizens understand the complex role of questioning in the world of science. Scientists take great pleasure in wondering about and questioning phenomena in the natural world. As Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 Nobel Prize winner, said of her childhood, "I didn’t want to just know names of things. I remember really wanting to know how it all worked." (Landau 2009, 835)

"Students at any grade level should be able to ask questions of each other about the texts they read, the features of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw from their models or scientific investigations. For engineering, they should ask questions to define the problem to be solved and to elicit ideas that lead to the constraints and specifications for its solution." (NRC 2012, 56)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Ask questions based on observations of Fast Plants® growing from seed through growth and development and reproduction to find more information about life cycles, characteristics of living things, and plants’ needs.
  • Ask and/or identify questions about what plants need from their environment to grow and reproduce that can be answered by an investigation. Identify variables in the environment (light, temperature, etc.) and develop questions about how they may affect Fast Plants®.
  • Define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool, such as how to pollinate Fast Plants® without any live pollinators in the classroom. For example, make and use bee sticks or engineer something similar to transfer pollen.
Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation:
  • Ask questions about observed, unexpected dominant/recessive inheritance patterns in Fast Plants®, or about unexpected results, such as elongated growth in seedlings grown in the dark, to seek additional information about possible causes.
  • Ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent environmental variables to refine and deepen students' explanations about plant life processes and relationships among plants, abiotic and other biotic environmental factors.
From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Define a design problem involving the development of a growing system or growth chamber for Fast Plants®. As a class, identify the key interacting components and criteria and constraints for the design (may include technical and environmental considerations).

Practice 2: Developing and Using Models

Model is a word with quite different meanings in science than in everyday language. Commonly, a model is a physical replica (e.g., a model airplane) or an ideal example of something (e.g., a model student). Scientific models represent an emerging understanding of phenomena and include flow charts, diagrams, and spreadsheets.

American physicist Neil Gershenfeld said, "The most common misunderstanding about science is that scientists seek and find truth. They don’t—they make and test models. . . . Making sense of anything means making models that can predict outcomes and accommodate observations. Truth is a model." (Edge 2011)

"Modeling can begin in the earliest grades, with students’ models progressing from concrete "pictures" and/or physical scale models (e.g., a toy car) to more abstract representations of relevant relationships in later grades, such as a diagram representing forces on a particular object in a system." (NRC 2012, 58)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Develop a plant model to represent patterns in the life cycle of plants, and make comparisons to other life cycles.
  • Distinguish between a life cycle diagram model and the actual observed events in the life cycle of Fast Plants® that the model represents.
  • Develop a pollinator model based on evidence of bee and flower structures and functions, and then use the model to pollinate. (This could begin with students developing a diagram or simple physical prototype to convey their proposed pollinator model.) Identify limitations of the designed model pollinator.
  • Use a model pollinator to test the cause-and-effect relationship between pollination and seed production in Fast Plants®.
Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits Scientific explanation: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics Scientific explanation:
  • Develop or modify a model of inheritance—based on observed evidence (e.g., differences in stem color between one of two parents and their offspring)—and use that model to describe the unobservable genetic mechanisms that regulate observed phenotypes.
  • Develop and use a diagram, showing an inheritance model to propose an explanation for how a trait is inherited by offspring, and predict an uncertain outcome: what pattern of stem color in Fast Plants® will be observed in the next generation if members of the first offspring generation are cross-pollinated to produce seed?
  • Where grade-level appropriate, extend students’ inheritance models to include a mathematical component that will generate the predicted probability for stem color outcomes based on parental phenotypes.
  • Evaluate the merits and limitations of peers’ inheritance models based on evidence of those models’ abilities to predict the observed inheritance pattern.
  • Develop a conceptual model illustrating plants’ roles in ecosystems, including representations of key matter and energy inputs and outputs (e.g., energy from light as an input and energy in chemical bonds and heat as outputs; matter from oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and sugars as inputs and outputs).

Practice 3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Investigations in science classrooms include a wide variety of learning experiences, all of which engage students in figuring something out. Whether guided or entirely student centered, investigations involve gathering information, giving priority to information that can be used logically as evidence to answer a question or find a solution.

Investigating is far different than following stepwise procedures to obtain a "correct" answer. Rather, scientific investigations require logical thinking, creativity planning, focus, and attention to detail. Genuine investigations, like figuring out a mystery, motivate both scientists and students. Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-American experimental physicist, is often quoted as having written, "There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!" (UCLA 1997)

"Students should have opportunities to plan and carry out several different kinds of investigations during their K–12 years. At all levels, they should engage in investigations that range from those structured by the teacher—in order to expose an issue or question that they would be unlikely to explore on their own (e.g., measuring specific properties of materials)—to those that emerge from students’ own questions." (NRC 2012, 61)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation:
  • Plan and conduct one or more investigations (with grade-level appropriate guidance) using Fast Plants® to collaboratively learn what plants need to grow, develop, and reproduce (produce seed). Determine, with guidance, what to observe to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables (e.g., light vs. dark) are controlled and the number of trials considered. Make predictions about what would happen if a variable is changed.
  • Evaluate appropriate methods for observing Fast Plants® as they grow and methods for recording those observations. Also, evaluate and use appropriate tools for collecting data (e.g., rulers to measure height). Then make observations and/or measurements to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence for an explanation of what plants need to grow, develop, and produce seed.
Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics Scientific explanation: Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity Scientific explanation:
  • Plan, conduct, and evaluate an investigation (individually or collaboratively) to test the effects of ecological variables on the growth and development of Fast Plants® as a model for natural environments. In the design, identify independent and dependent variables (e.g., population size, nutrient/light/water or other resource availability, temperature, soil type) and controls, what tools are needed to do the gathering, how measurements will be recorded, and how much data are needed to support a claim. Then, under a range of controlled conditions, collect data: observations such as germination rate, plant height, number of days to first flower, and number of seeds produced. Finally, evaluate the investigation, considering possible confounding variables that may or may not have been effectively controlled.
  • Plan, conduct, and evaluate an investigation collaboratively to model and test the effects of selectively breeding Fast Plants® as a model for natural selection in nature. In the design, choose a quantifiable Fast Plants® trait (e.g., the number of hairs on the first true leaf) as the target for selection and identify independent variables (e.g., nutrient/light/water or other resource availability, temperature) that must be controlled across generations. Also, during design, decide collaboratively how and when the selected trait will be measured (must be prior to flowering/pollination and at the same time for both parent and offspring generations), the population size of Fast Plants® needed for a reasonable sample size, and the accuracy of data needed. Additionally, include in the design the logistics for selecting only a subset of the parent generation that exhibits the greatest expression of the selected trait to be intermated (e.g., the hairiest 10% of the population). Finally, evaluate the investigation, considering possible confounding variables that may or may not have been effectively controlled.

Practice 4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Deciding which data is relevant and reliable is critical in both science and engineering. Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, said, "One of the biggest and most important tools of theoretical physics is the wastebasket." (Feynman 1999, 234)

Once collected, data must be presented in a form that can reveal any patterns and relationships and that allows results to be communicated to others. Because raw data as such have little meaning, a major practice of scientists is to organize and interpret data through tabulating, graphing, or statistical analysis. Such analysis can bring out the meaning of data—and their relevance—so that they may be used as evidence.

Engineers, too, make decisions based on evidence about whether a given design will work; they rarely rely on trial and error. Engineers often analyze a design by creating a model or prototype and collecting extensive data on how it performs, including under extreme conditions. Analysis of this kind of data not only informs design decisions and enables the prediction or assessment of performance but also helps define or clarify problems, determine economic feasibility, evaluate alternatives, and investigate failures." (NRC 2012, 61–62)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Record information about the life cycle of Fast Plants® and/or their responses to controlled experiments (pictures, drawings, and/or writings of observations). Compare predictions about how plants grow and/or what they need (based on prior experiences) to what occurred (observable events).
  • Analyze and interpret data—such as daily Fast Plants® height measurements and number of days to flowering—to make sense of life cycle phenomena, using logical reasoning and mathematics.
  • Use observations of pollen collected by designed pollinators (e.g., bee sticks and student-engineered pollinators) to determine if they work as intended. Further, compare and contrast pollen observations made by different groups in order to discuss similarities and differences in findings. Then use these findings to evaluate and refine the designed pollinator solutions.
General Scientific explanation:
  • Construct and analyze graphical displays (e.g., tables and graphs) of growth and development data of Fast Plants® (e.g., daily height measurements, observed number of days to a developmental stage that can include flowering and the number of leaves) to identify linear and nonlinear relationships. Distinguish between causal and correlational relationships in those data.
  • Analyze and interpret Fast Plants® data to provide evidence for ecological and inheritance phenomena. Apply concepts of statistics and probability (including mean, median, mode, and variability) to analyze and characterize student-collected inheritance data (e.g., stem color frequencies across generations of Fast Plants® and the plants’ growth and development observations in controlled experiments).
  • Analyze and interpret Fast Plants® data, working individually or with a small group; then evaluate the impact of new data from classmates on a working explanation and/or model of a proposed inheritance process or ecosystem variable.

Practice 5: Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

Computational thinking happens when students who are on a quest to figure something out use strategies for organizing and searching through data, create and/or use sequences of steps (called algorithms), or use and develop new simulations or models of natural and designed systems.

Mathematician Mary G. Ross advised her students, "To function efficiently in today’s world, you need math." (Sheppard 1995) Math is also a tool that is key to understanding science.

"Although there are differences in how mathematics and computational thinking are applied in science and in engineering, mathematics often brings these two fields together by enabling engineers to apply the mathematical form of scientific theories and by enabling scientists to use powerful information technologies designed by engineers. Both kinds of professionals can thereby accomplish investigations and analyses and build complex models, which might otherwise be out of the question." (NRC 2012, 65)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Decide if qualitative observations of Fast Plants®, quantitative data (e.g., height measurements, counted number of days to growth, and development events), or both together are best for analyzing relationships between environmental factors and the growth and development of Fast Plants®.
  • Describe, estimate, and then measure soil volume available for Fast Plants® roots in different designs for Fast Plants® growing systems (e.g., quads vs. recycled bottle vs. deli container growing systems) and predict the effects on growth and development. Use these quantitative data to compare alternative growing system solutions.
Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation:
  • Use mathematical representations for observed outcomes in the inheritance of Fast Plants® traits (e.g., stem color in parent and offspring generations) to describe and support/refute the predicted inheritance outcome.
  • Apply mathematical concepts and/or processes (e.g., ratio, rate, percent) to questions about the effects of environmental variables on the growth and development of Fast Plants®.
Natural Selection Scientific explanation:
  • Use simple limit cases to see if the outcomes from a Fast Plants® selection experiment makes sense by comparing those outcomes with what is known about natural selection in the natural world.

Practice 6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

No scientific or engineering adventure is complete without determining if an evidence-based explanation or designed solution can be constructed with those data collected. Challenging as it can be to move students beyond reporting results to constructing evidence-based explanations, it is an essential practice. In the words of Marie Curie, the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize, ". . . I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy . . ." (Curie 1923)

The goal of science is to construct explanations for the causes of phenomena. Students are expected to construct their own explanations as well as apply standard explanations they learn about from their teachers or reading. An explanation includes a claim that relates how a variable or variables relate to another variable or a set of variables. A claim is often made in response to a question; in the process of answering the question, scientists often design investigations to generate data.

The goal of engineering is to solve problems. Designing solutions to problems is a systematic process. Engineers’ activities "have elements that are distinct from those of scientists. These elements include specifying constraints and criteria for desired qualities of the solution, developing a design plan, producing and testing models or prototypes, selecting among alternative design features to optimize the achievement of design criteria, and refining design ideas based on the performance of a prototype or simulation." (NRC 2012, 68–69)

From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Make, record, and use firsthand observations of Fast Plants® as they grow and progress through developmental stages to construct an evidence-based account of life cycle stages (e.g., consistently following a sequence of events—developing leaves, growing taller, developing flowers, producing seeds in pods).
  • Apply scientific ideas about what plants need to solve a Fast Plants® design challenge (e.g., to design a pollinator or growth chamber). Then compare multiple solutions (student-designed pollinators or growth chambers) based on how well they meet the design challenge criteria and constraints (e.g., pollinator structures and functions or plants’ needs that must be provided by a growth chamber).
Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems Scientific explanation:
  • Construct an explanation of observed relationships between environmental factors (e.g., light intensity, temperature) and evidence (e.g., height measurements, leaf color observations) to construct or support an explanation about how Fast Plants® are affected by their environment.
  • Identify from evidence gathered by observing the Fast Plants® life cycle what supports particular points in an explanation for what plants need to grow and reproduce (develop seeds).
Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics Scientific explanation: Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits Scientific explanation:
  • Construct an evidence-based explanation for relationships between environmental variables and the growth and development rates of Fast Plants® (e.g., plants in low-light conditions grow and develop slower than those in high-light conditions). In these explanations, use qualitative and quantitative observations gathered firsthand from germinating Fast Plants® seeds or growing Fast Plants® in soil under conditions designed to test relationships between environmental variables and growth and development rates. In addition, apply scientific reasoning to show why the data or evidence is adequate for the constructed explanation.
  • Construct and revise an explanation for observed inheritance patterns in Fast Plants® traits (e.g., stem color). Base the explanation on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that scientific theories and laws (such as Mendel's law of segregation) operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Construct and revise an explanation for a selective breeding experiment, using Fast Plants® (e.g., selecting for high numbers of hairs on the first leaf margin). Base the explanation on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that scientific theories (in this case, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection) operates today as it did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
  • Design, evaluate, and refine a solution to the challenge to grow plants on Mars—just as NASA is currently working to solve—based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and trade-off considerations.

Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Argument in science is about defending evidence-based claims and evaluating how explanations are constructed. As physicist Feynman said during a lecture at Cornell University, "It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are . . . If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong." (Feynman 1964)

"The study of science and engineering should produce a sense of the process of argument necessary for advancing and defending a new idea or an explanation of a phenomenon and the norms for conducting such arguments. In that spirit, students should argue for the explanations they construct, defend their interpretations of the associated data, and advocate for the designs they propose." (NRC 2012, 73)

General Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Use the explanations about what plants need and/or how environment affects plant growth—explanations developed from Fast Plants® experiments and/or life cycle observations—as the basis for developing arguments about the optimal conditions for growing Fast Plants®. Include claims about cause and effect supported by firsthand evidence, class data, and/or a model. During guided discussions in which arguments are presented, listen actively and indicate agreement or disagreement based on evidence, and/or retell the main points of each argument.
  • Make a claim about the merits of a designed solution for a Fast Plants® pollinator or growth chamber by citing relevant evidence about how it meets the criteria for what is needed and constraints of the problem (e.g., size or materials constraints).
General Scientific explanation: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Engineered solution:
  • Use explanations constructed from investigations involving Fast Plants® (e.g., inheritance or ecological investigations) as the basis for constructing arguments about the use of scientific reasoning and logical interpretations of data and facts. Respectfully provide and receive critiques about explanations, procedures, models, and questions by citing relevant evidence and posing and responding to questions that elicit pertinent elaboration and detail.
  • Evaluate competing design solutions (based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria) for growing plants in a student-designed growth chamber and/or growing system. In addition, evaluate solutions in comparison to NASA's work on designed solutions for growing plants in space and/or on Mars. In doing so, evaluate the limitations, trade-offs, constraints, and ethical issues (e.g., genetically engineering plants).

Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

"Any education in science and engineering needs to develop students’ ability to read and produce domain-specific [science- and engineering-specific] text. As such, every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson, particularly reading and producing the genres of texts that are intrinsic to science and engineering." (NRC 2012, 76)

Scientifically literate citizens must be able to locate, read, and evaluate science and engineering information sufficiently to recognize potential conflicts of interest and bias. Therefore, students need practice and support for skepticism and critical thinking. As noted primatologist Jane Goodall said, "Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential." (NOVA 2014)

General Scientific explanation: General Engineered solution:
  • Obtain and combine information from firsthand observations of Fast Plants® with information from books and/or other reliable media to explain what plants need and/or the effects of environmental factors on the growth of Fast Plants® (and the development of solutions to a Fast Plants® growth chamber design problem).
  • Communicate information or design ideas based on Fast Plants® investigations or design challenges with others in oral and/or written forms. Include in these communications models, drawings, writing, or numbers that provide detail about scientific ideas, practices, and/or design ideas.
General Scientific explanation:
  • Integrate qualitative and quantitative observations of Fast Plants® with scientific information derived from relevant written text to clarify claims and explanations about ecological relationships and processes, inheritance patterns, and/or natural selection.
  • Communicate scientific information and explanations in writing and/or through oral presentations about Fast Plants® investigations and their implications for processes and relationships in the natural world.
  • Evaluate the validity and reliability of data, claims, and explanations made by peers based on investigations of Fast Plants®. Then synthesize multiple claims along with information from written texts and other sources to construct and communicate a deeper explanation for an observed phenomenon based on investigations of Fast Plants®.

What we do to figure things out in everyday life can be quite similar to the scientific approach: we wonder and we try to find answers to our wonderings. In science, we make observations, conduct research, and investigate; we develop tools for measuring and keep track of what we find out; and we revise our thinking based on what we learn, then tell other people about what we discover.

By engaging in these practices explicitly in the context of learning science concepts, students can develop a deeper understanding of those practices and learn how science and engineering differ from some other ways of knowing that do not need to rely on evidence. In addition, using the practices of science and engineering affords students valuable opportunities to learn—as physicist Feynman described—"the pleasure of finding things out."

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Curie, Marie, and Pierre Curie. 1923. Autobiographical Notes, translated by Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg. New York: Macmillan.

Edge. 2011. "Truth Is a Model." Accessed October 2019:

Feynman, Richard. "Feynman Chaser—The Key to Science." Cornell University lecture. 1964. YouTube video, accessed October 15, 2019:

Feynman, Richard, and M. Feynman. 1999. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Perseus Publishing.

Landau, Misia. 2009. Clinical Chemistry. "A Conversation with Elizabeth Blackburn." DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2008.119578. Accessed October 2019:

National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

NOVA. The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers. "Being with Jane Goodall." 2014. YouTube video, accessed October 15, 2019:

Sheppard, Laurel M. 1995. Lash Publications International, "An Interview with Mary Ross." Web September 16, 2014. Accessed October 15, 2019:

University of California at Los Angeles. "In her own words . . ." Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics. Latest Revision April 30, 1997. Accessed October 15, 2019:

*Next Generation Science Standards is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of, and do not endorse, these products.

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