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From Ancient Plants to the Whole Universe

November 28, 2016 in Excursions - No Comments

From Ancient Plants to the Whole Universe

November 28, 2016 in Excursions - No Comments

Last week our Year 10 Science Extension classes visited the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium and Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens for a specially designed curriculum-expansion day. We had just finished a space unit (which is not given enough curriculum time in my opinion!), and many of these students are going on to Biology next year. I wanted to show them the wonders of space in the unique setting of the planetarium show, which is about as immersive as we can get without actually being in space. I also wanted to expose them to some of the topics they would be learning about next year in Biology.

It took a fair bit of wheedling from our HOD to get permission and budget for this trip, being so close to the end of the year and with the budgets closed. Thankfully he prevailed, he is a master at explaining why activities are educational and beneficial!


Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium

We started the morning exploring the exhibits in the Planetarium—marvelling at the astronaut suit, the scale models of satellites and rockets, and the images of celestial bodies such as nebulae and comets. A few of the boys were particularly impressed with the scale models, discussing in detail how big the real thing must be and how impressive the engineering is. A few pretended to walk around for a bit like they were in low gravity, and some of the girls couldn’t get over the images of the nebulae and galaxies. 

Then it was into the Cosmic Skydome for a live show, reclining in the special chairs and watching the show above us. I must say I prefer our one in Brisbane to the one in London, I feel like our layout is better, and the live show allows for interaction that pre-recorded ones don’t. With the lights down and the students fully engaged, we first discovered the mythological histories of constellations. We all laughed at their supposed shapes, particularly the ball-and-stick dolphin constellation. Our presenter showed us how to find in the Brisbane night sky the constellations of Orion, with his famed belt, who is hunting Taurus with the aid of his Dog.

Then it was off into the solar system, the roof above us zooming out and around the planets in a mildly motion-sickness-inducing way. We were all shocked at the amount of space junk surrounding our planet – you almost can’t see the planet! The presenter led a discussion about the need for people to come up with ways to clear some of the junk away, talking about the implications of so much pollution around our planet. From here we zoomed further out to explore our place in the arm of our galaxy, talking about how big the galaxy is and why its shape is odd. Then we went out again to compare our galaxy with those around us, being blown away by the sheer number of galaxies and stars that are considered ‘close’, let alone all the rest of them. Eventually we ended up at the very edge of the known universe, with the discussion focusing on how scientists are able to collect data about things so very, very far away.

The end of the presentation felt very abrupt, like we could have kept going for hours. The students broke into quiet discussion about all the things they had seen, and how amazing it was to view it in such a unique way. It was a very humbling, informative session, which had the students in a mild existential crisis.

Botanic Gardens

After a picnic lunch out on the lawn (during which a soccer ball was confiscated for going onto the road), it was off to the gardens for an afternoon of advanced biology in preparation for the curriculum next year. The education staff at the gardens had been in contact for a few weeks and we were lucky enough to act as a pilot school for a new program they are wanting to put in place for next year.

We learnt about the history of dichotomous keys and cladistics (similar to a family tree), talking through how scientists had changed their processes over the years with the aide of new technologies. It was a fantastic ‘science as a human endeavour’ session – even I learned a few new things! We then learnt how to make and use these classification tools in the context of plant evolution, which would be our focus for the afternoon.

After examining samples of algae and moss (the earliest plant ancestors), we were out into the sunshine of the gardens, following the evolutionary story of plants and examining live samples at each step. We learnt how to identify varieties of palm, in what manner ferns reproduce without true seeds, how to tell the difference between male and female pine cones, and the differences between flowering plants. All of this was taught in the context of how plants have adapted and evolved over millions of years into what we see today. We used a couple of keys to identify individual species, and had a lot of hands on. We were taken off the paths and into the stands of trees, earning curious looks from members of the public. We even got to explore some plants with scented leaves, my favourite being the one that smells like fresh Turkish Delight.

dsc_0411Looking for fern spores – these guys don’t use true seeds to reproduce! We had lots of fun looking at different fern species trying to find the spores, which can be especially difficult when they aren’t mature and brown yet.

We ended the session by creating our own cladistics diagram of plant evolution, sitting under a pavilion and laughing at the myriad birds who came to investigate us. We were able to see from our walk and our newly-created diagram the progression from single-celled algae right up to the most complex flowering plants we have today. It was such a great thing to be able to physically walk up to and touch the plants that represent the different stages of plant evolution, something that can come across very drily in the classroom.

Unexpected Results

A few of the boys were slightly-more-than-mildly interested in the things we had learnt about during the day and asked about careers in botany. This delighted me no-end, as my own undergraduate degree is in the field. They were interested to know it’s not all about naming and classifying plants, and I was able to tell them about my own experiences in plant genetics and diseases, making sure they knew it wasn’t all just looking at plants in gardens. I think they were a bit shocked at the variety of career prospects from something they had previously seen as incredibly boring and pointless.

We were all very tired on the bus on the way home, but I could hear some of the students talking about various things they had liked throughout the day. We all definitely learnt something , and it was such a fantastic day out experiencing two separate parts of the curriculum in unique and engaging settings. I will be looking to do this again next year, that’s for sure!


If you are interested in taking your own classes out to these fantastic excursion venues, information about the Sir Brisbane Thomas Planetarium can be found here and the Mouth Coot-tha Botanic Gardens here.



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