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Virtual Plants

By Roopsha D Bandopadhyay

I was introduced to MIT’s ESP events through teaching for HSSP over the summer. I was excited by the prospect of teaching anything, literally anything, to high school students who were eager to learn. The same enthusiasm compelled me to teach a sequence course for Spark this spring. Out of the near-infinite topics I could choose from, why plants? I think it was a combination of things: the fact that ​I grew up with a forest in my backyard and I loved looking at what flora accompanied me on my daily walks, the fact that my room currently looks (and smells!) like a greenhouse and I have no intention of lessening it, and the fact that being in nature is an ideal socially-distanced and relatively accessible activity suited for the warming weather.

As is the case with many other subjects that live in Zoom in the looming shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, plants are particularly tricky to learn about online. Everything from their morphology to habitat and ecology either requires or is greatly enhanced by in-person attention and study. A testament to this is how botanists (pre-pandemic, of course) frequently travel to different biomes all over the world to collect and characterize plants through field work. While I will not claim to have enough funding to send my students on such expeditions, I do think a simple plant hunt in MIT’s Killian Court would have revealed what can exist even in heavily urban environments.

To attempt to recreate this experience, I created a “virtual plant hunt” in the form of a PowerPoint. I hid very small pictures of twenty-five different plant species in slides of seven different settings that resemble environments in Massachusetts. When my students found a plant, they would click on it to reveal the plant’s “information slide.” It contained a larger picture similar to what could be examined in-person and details that could be readily gathered from the field, such as plant height; branching pattern; and leaf color, shape, and texture. My students would then “take a picture” (screenshot) and use this information to catalogue the plant species in a digital laboratory notebook.

I was overjoyed to learn that my students could identify a hornwort and a yellow jewelweed plant from this hunt! They did so by using concepts about the morphology of different groups of plants I introduced in a previous class. This was my favorite part about teaching: I could engage interest in a fascinating topic with hope that my students could continue to learn about it even after the course ended. Although future plant hunts, be they professional or amateur, will be in-person, I will always remember hunting for plants through PowerPoint.

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