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‘Blind­ness’ blamed for de­mand fall in plant cour­ses

Peo­ple fail to no­tice flora, says lec­turer

- Gardening · Biology · Botany · Science · Ecology · Climate Change · Hobbies · United Kingdom · John Bostock

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 mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary 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 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 when taught plant re­lated con­tent at univer­sity. He said: “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 ex­peEDGE ri­ences 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/.

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