Girls, Inc., Eureka! outreach plant science agronomy farm teaching

Science Outreach: “Inspiring all girls to be strong, smart & bold” with Plant Science!

Our 1-day and 3-day workshops on Plant Science were described as “lit” by the Eureka! Girls.

July can be a hectic time for plant scientists. We are in the middle of our field season during which many of us are in 90+ degree weather farming. For me as a plant pathologist, I count the level of disease on plots of grass and take soil samples. Not only is field season in full swing, but we are all still running experiments in the laboratory, preparing for conferences, and creating lesson plans for the upcoming fall semester. However, one great way to beat the stress is scientific outreach! For the fourth year in a row my Stockbridge School of Agriculture colleagues, Dr. Michelle DaCosta, Kelly Allen, and Rachael Bernstein, and I were lucky enough to participate in the Eureka! Program through Girls, Inc. of Holyoke, Ma.

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Fig. 1 The girls of the Eureka! Program list all the products made from plants that we find when we get ice cream, go to the movies, or eat a hamburger! (Photo credit: Rachael Bernstein).

Girls, Inc. is a nationwide organization with the mission of “inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold” in every aspect of their lives. They offer many programs for girls from Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield, Massachusetts and the surrounding towns in Massachusetts. One program is Eureka! The goal of the summer program is to bring girls to UMass Amherst and expose them to different disciplines within STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics disciplines), and we have the pleasure of introducing the girls to Plant Science.

Our 3-day workshop is designed for girls entering eighth grade and is an introduction to Plant Science. We go over how we use plants every day (for example, without grass we wouldn’t have food for cows and therefore couldn’t eat hamburgers) and which parts of the plant (stem, roots, leaves, flowers, seeds) are utilized to make the products we use in our daily lives (Figure 1). The girls are always surprised that potatoes come from underground stems!

One major use of plants is in medicine, especially using plants for their antibiotic properties. The girls tested this out by growing bacteria on petri dishes, adding garlic to the plates, and observing the “cleared” zone where the garlic killed off the bacteria (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2 Clearing or “zone of inhibition” around the slice of garlic–the garlic contains antibiotics that killed of the bacteria growing on the rest of the plate. (Photo credit: Kelly Allen)

We also took a trip to the UMass Agronomy Farm in South Deerfield, Ma. There, the girls learned about all the different research studies being done on the farm, such as tomato breeding with undergraduate Levi Lilly, optimizing growth of ethnic crops, such as ají dulce, here in Massachusetts, with Dr. Frank Magnan (Figure 3), and how cover crops can prevent nutrient loss from farm soils with graduate students Sam Corcoran and Julie Fine (Figure 4). The students also met with Amanda Brown who runs the Student Farm at UMass to learn about how local plants grow, and saw first hand how carrots, peppers, and potatoes look like when they are growing (Figure 5).

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Fig. 3 Tasting ají dulce, a pepper native to Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba, that is being grown in in Massachusetts through the use of a High Tunnel by Dr. Frank Magnan’s research group. (Photo credit: Kelly Allen)

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Fig. 4 The Eureka! Girls learned about the use of cover crops to prevent the loss of nutrients from soil with a soda bottle demonstration conducted by Sam Corcoran and Julie Fine from Dr. Masoud Hashemi’s laboratory. (Photo credit: Kelly Allen)

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Fig. 5 Amanda Brown, who runs the Student Farm, shows the girls potato plants and the leaves that have been checked by the Colorado Potato Beetle. (Photo credit: Kelly Allen)

In both the 3-day workshop and the 1-day workshop we held for 9th grade girls, we talked about a subject near and dear to all of us: plant stress. We started by asking the girls what makes them sick or stressed and the discussed how those same things (people, heat, lack of water, cold, bacteria, fungi, and viruses) make plants sick too. We discussed how to tell if a plant was sick and to find the cause by looking at pepper and tomato plants that had been infected by fungus, kept at temperatures below freezing, or hadn’t been watered for days (Figure 6-8).

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Fig. 6 Girls from the 1-day workshop discuss different diseases, like coffee rust and corn smut, that attack many of the plants we use for food and fiber. (Photo credit: Kelly Allen).

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Fig. 7 Dr. DaCosta shows the girls how to measure photosynthesis of plant leaves and the girls calculate how much less sugar diseased or drought-stressed plants produce compared to healthy plants. (Photo credit: Rachael Bernstein).

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Fig. 8 The girls use microscopes to look at symptoms (such as rotting roots) and signs (such as the spores of fungi) to determine what made the plants sick. Kathryn Vescio joined us to help out with the microscope work! (Photo credit: Rachael Bernstein).

All four days of the workshops were fun, and we think they were fun for the girls too! There is nothing more motivating and inspiring than talking about our research and the science that we are so passionate about with the next generation. Hopefully we inspired them to become plant scientists, or at least helped them appreciate the world around them and what goes into producing the things we all use every day, like food, cotton, paper, and lumber.

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