Curious minds and the science of the spud

19 May 2016

The potato may not be the obvious choice as a means of inspiring young minds about science, but that’s precisely the point for Plant & Food Research soil scientist Dr Trish Fraser.

This week saw Dr Fraser and colleagues host more than 300 primary and intermediate students from six Selwyn district schools at Plant & Food Research’s Lincoln site, taking them on a scientific journey in sustainable production, crop protection, breeding and biotechnology, and food and nutrition, with the potato holding centre stage.

The visits were part of a project funded through the Unlocking Curious Minds programme – a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) initiative which aims at enhancing the role and awareness of science in the community through public engagement and participation. Researchers and research teams from across the country put proposals forward for funding approval under the scheme.

“The aim of our Unlocking Curious Minds project is to inspire children about science by giving them a greater appreciation of the important role it plays in their daily lives, and with things we can easily take for granted,” says Dr Fraser.

“We tend to think science needs to have an obvious or dramatic ‘gee whiz’ aspect to be interesting, but we can miss the fascinating science that plays out around us every day, either through natural processes or the work of scientists themselves.

“We used the potato for the project because children can easily relate to them, especially through their love of chips. So this humble vegetable provides a great vehicle for explaining how plants are breed for different purposes, how we use scientific methods to fight pests and diseases, how growing plants can affect the environment, and the range of behind-the-scenes science that gets the crop from paddock to plate.

“We want to show the students that something that might seem mundane actually has a fascinating science story to tell. In so doing, they gain a better understanding of the properties and processes of the living world.”

The programme was repeated over three sessions throughout the week, with the students receiving presentations and taken on a tour to research stations on Plant & Food Research’s Lincoln site, where they then participated in science demonstrations.   

Dr Fraser’s Unlocking Curious Minds project also includes an upcoming workshop for teachers, which aims at identifying opportunities to better support their science teaching endeavours, thereby enhancing the engagement of students with the subject. 

“Primary and intermediate teachers can be responsible for many subjects, but cannot be experts in everything. The school environment can make it tricky to juggle all of these teaching responsibilities, with science often perceived as time consuming and difficult to teach,” says Dr Fraser.

“Research has shown that while children start school with enthusiasm, their motivation for subjects such as science can decrease as they progress into intermediate school. An important part of this programme is to explore ways of building the teacher’s toolkit to help ensure students maintain an interest in science later in life.”

The MBIE programme is a collaboration between Plant & Food Research and the Lincoln Ngā Mā tā puna o Ngā Pā kihi Learning Community Cluster with support from Potatoes New Zealand and Lincoln New World.

Emma Timewell
Communications Manager, Corporate Communications,
Plant & Food Research Mt Albert,
120 Mt Albert Road, Sandringham
Auckland, 1025, New Zealand
Telephone: +64-9-925 8692
Mobile: +64-21-2429 365

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