Spreading the science bug to the classroom

  • Aug 5, 2016
  • Kramer lab, PhotosynQ, future scientists
  • Department of Energy Projects, Future Scientists
  • By Igor Houwat, Stefanie Tietz, Ruby Carrillo

Years ago, Dr. David Kramer envisioned the construction of a cheap and user-friendly device to collect data on plant health and photosynthetic activity. It would allow researchers, farmers, and other agricultural practitioners to bypass the need for similar yet prohibitively expensive technologies on the market.

Fast forward to today, Kramer and his lab have built PhotosynQ, a platform boasting a suite of tools and a thriving website housing the 300,000 data points collected from users around the world. Subscribers can interact with each other and learn from the data, which is accessible to everyone.

Think social media network for plant science.

An image that shows a device clipping to a plant and immediately uploading data to a mobile app.
Data is immediately available on an app
and uploaded to the website.
By Harley J Seeley Photography.

The PhotosynQ Education Group

"I also thought PhotosynQ could enhance science education. It is hard to create complex, ‘real’ science lessons that also get students immediate feedback on their work, and our tools can help solve these problems,” says Kramer, Hannah Distinguished Professor at the PRL.  

Kramer’s interest has encouraged two of his lab members, Ruby Carrillo and Stefanie Tietz, and an industry partner, Brian Collins, to create the PhotosynQ Education Group.

“Despite our different academic backgrounds, we three have an immense interest in application-based learning, which we believe better engages students with STEM topics,” says Ruby, a PhD candidate.

Stefanie, a post doc, agrees: “The old lecture system alone can be boring, and we want to promote active and meaningful learning experiences.”

“And our main goal is to use PhotosynQ to peak student interest into scientific inquiry and to fight misconceptions about biology,” says Brian, who has a PhD in Learning, Technology, and Culture from MSU.

An image of two students experimenting in the field.
Two students experimenting in the field

Inaugural workshop

PhotosynQ can be adapted to many educational contexts, from amateur scientists poking around their backyards, to high schoolers learning basic concepts, up to graduate students working towards their degrees.

The first trial workshop, however, focused on undergraduate learning, bringing together 15 interns from the Plant Genomics @ MSU Research Experience for Undergraduates Program.

For 3 hours, the students were instructed on basic science skills, namely how to carefully collect and process data, which is crucial for building research questions.   

An image of a lecture on how to use the technology.

"We had the students use our tools to help them think scientifically. On our end, we wanted to see if undergraduate researchers benefit when instructed on how to devise a research question and whether a ‘realistic’ tool aided the process.” Ruby says.

 “We did run into some bugs with our units, since they were still in beta,” says Stefanie,
“but it was an encouraging start.”

“We were actually surprised to inspire some great informal discussions about what it’s like to do a graduate degree. And that gets to the heart of it, getting people excited about science,” adds Brian.

Dr. Cornelius Barry, Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture and Director of the Plant Genomics @ MSU REU Site, agrees. “The opportunity to work with the PhotosynQ Education Group was a great experience for our REU interns. For many of them, this summer was their first exposure to research, and learning to formulate a research question, collect data, and interpret and report that data represents a fundamental skill that all scientists need to acquire. PhotosynQ is an excellent educational device to teach students the basics of scientific inquiry.”

An image of the undergraduate student participants in the classroom.
REU interns

The team now plans to develop modules for classroom use, and there is already interest from some undergraduate biology teachers. “We’ll encourage more hands-on activities or perhaps ask students to create proposals on how they would use PhotosynQ in their education,” Brian adds.

“We are currently seeking funding opportunities and partners at MSU,” Stefanie concludes. “Then we can build an educational community that will plug into the wider PhotosynQ platform.”