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MSU scientists teach kids about plant defense at MSU Science Festival 2019

MSU plant scientists packed their stuff and took the lab out to two schools, Radmoor Montessori and Hope Middle School, as part of this year’s MSU Science Festival. The 115 school students, ranging from 4th to 6th graders, got to learn about plant defense mechanisms and got a taste of how to observe and think critically as a scientist.

The brains behind the events was Leah Johnson, a graduate student in the lab of Gregg Howe. She shared her reflections in the following interview.

What did you have the kids do?

We had three different stations that the students got to experience.

The first was a display of various plant chemical and physical properties. They got to touch wild eggplant relatives with thorns, a wild tomato species, Solanum pennellii, that is sticky to the touch, and normal tomato plants with smelly leaf compounds.

The second station showcased plant defenses in the face of hungry caterpillars! We brought in two plants, one normal, and one which we modified in the lab so it couldn’t defend itself. Then, we showed them some caterpillars that had been feeding on these plants for two weeks before the event. The kids had to decide which caterpillars were eating which plants, based on how big they grew. Obviously, the ones feeding on the defense-less plants were fatter! The kids loved that station because they could touch and poke the caterpillars. It was hard to get them away from it!

Student with caterpillar
A student with a caterpillar
By Sheena Lashua

The last station was about Chlorophyll extraction, which is safe and easy to do in a school. This activity was more about the science process. We showed how scientists use chemicals to extract substances from plants so we can measure them in labs. The kids liked that one too, because if you shake a leaf long enough in the mixture, it turns white. It’s because the chlorophyll is leeching out into the mixture.

What was the theme tying these activities together?

We wanted the students to process the scientific method by performing their own experiments. The idea was to avoid tedious memorization of details, but to figure out answers through observation and deduction. Plus, we didn’t want 10 to 12 year-olds sitting through a lecture!

Leah Johnson with students
Leah with students
By Sheena Lashua

What is your personal motivation behind your participation at the MSU Science Festival?

I became passionate about science outreach during high school. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to science back then. One of my teachers started a program called “Time for Real Science,” where we got to create our independent research projects, guided by a few teachers. It was life changing! I know many of my colleagues said that this program helped determine their career path. So I saw the importance of exposing students to science and research, showing them what career opportunities there are. That’s the goal for me right now, especially with students who don’t get a lot of science exposure, which is common in schools.

How did the kids like it?

Overall, the students were excited to participate and wanted to take the experiments home! The best part for us was to see these kids – who aren’t challenged enough by science in their schools – walk through activities, make connections, and suddenly, things would click for them.

Kids with tomato plants
Kids observing tomato plants
By Sheena Lashua

Some of the kids even asked some interesting, in-depth questions. One type of question that came to the fore was, why do we like science? They don’t really know why anyone would want to do this.

Here’s what we said: Plant science is very important. In the face of variable climate conditions and a growing population, plant science research can provide sustainable options to help feed the world. Additionally, science provides us with the tools to learn about our world, and it’s exciting to understand how and why things work!


The MSU volunteers were: Leah Johnson - Graduate student, Gregg Howe lab; Ian Major - Postdoc, Howe lab; Jake Bibik - Graduate student, Bjoern Hamberger lab; Kailey Miller - Undergraduate student, Kramer lab; Danielle Young - Graduate student, Yair Shachar-Hill lab; Paul Fiesel - Graduate student, Rob Last lab; Yann-Ru Lou - Postdoc, Rob Last lab

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