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Wisconsin Fast Plants® in Elementary Classrooms: Well Aligned with NGSS

Dr. Hedi Baxter Lauffer
Director of the Fast Plants® Program
University of Wisconsin-Madison

For more than 25 years, clever elementary teachers have devised ways of handing out the tiny Brassica seeds that are Wisconsin Fast Plants® to young learners with widely ranging fine motor skills. All these teachers’ cleverness was well worth the effort because of how beautifully these rapid-growing, flowering plants complete their full life cycle in a classroom setting. Once planted, the daily progression of Fast Plants’ growth and development holds the attention of even the most distracted students.

Fast Plants® now made easier

And now, planting Fast Plants® with elementary students just got a whole lot easier! Recently, Carolina introduced a new product, the Wisconsin Fast Plants®: Seed Disk. We can now purchase a pack of 8 seed disks, and each seed disk contains 16 to 18 Standard Wisconsin Fast Plants® seeds “sewn” into a circle of dissolvable paper. Fast Plants® seeds in seed disks are visible through the paper, so students can still observe what they are planting.

The disks fit seamlessly into a deli-container growing system—a great system for use with youngsters because it is stable and easy to handle when students observe their plants. Using these new seed disks, at planting time we now easily hand out to each student group a seed disk along with a deli-container growing system, fertilizer pellets, and potting mix. Then, circulating among all student groups during planting, we can see with a glance if students are following the planting steps we taught and if all the seeds were covered.

The seed sponge

In addition, we like to use the seed sponge model that was introduced in the original Fast Plants® workshops to demonstrate how the baby plant inside the seed unfolds during germination. And now that modeling is included as an important component in the Next Generation Science Standards, using this physical model of germination gives us a good opportunity to also teach about how and why models can be important tools in science. We also typically germinate seed disks in a petri dish (the disks are just the right size to fit in a petri dish, too) for students to see what is happening beneath the soil when their Fast Plants® germinate.

Bee sticks

And if the ease of planting with the new seed disks wasn’t reason enough for us to keep Fast Plants® in our lesson plans, a new Bee-ing an Engineer lesson that uses pollination activities to engage elementary students in engineering practices has really excited us. In this activity, learners first observe structures on dried bees and flowers and make “bee sticks” to pollinate their Fast Plants®. Because the bright yellow pollen in Fast Plants® flowers is obvious to see, it is easy for students to connect how the hairs and pollen baskets (structures) on the dried bees function by gathering pollen when students “buzz” their bees among the flowers.

Once students are clear about how bees function as pollinators, we pose the question, How can you design a model that mimics the way a bee pollinates Fast Plants® flowers? Then, students work in teams to design a simple model that would work like a bee to pollinate the Fast Plants® in our classroom. After student teams design their models, we try them out and look for signs of pollen transfer. We conclude the lesson with real-life stories about problems that occur around the world when pollinators are threatened, and discuss how difficult it is to replace what happens in nature. For an example, see the video segment about the loss of bees in China from the “Silence of the Bees” episode of the PBS show Nature.

An effective classroom organism

Fast Plants® have been an effective classroom organism since their introduction. With current standards emphasizing the importance of teaching science ideas more holistically, we are finding Fast Plants® even more relevant for our elementary lessons that integrate disciplinary concepts with science and engineering practices.

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