As an experimental plant ecologist, JC Cahill practices what he calls “kick-the-tire science”—a less rigorous type of investigation that may seem outdated in the STEM era. In his film, What Plants Talk About, which originally aired in 2013 on PBS’ Nature, he presents not only astounding discoveries about plant behavior, but also an approach to science that is full of wonder and whimsy. Cahill's expertise begins with finding nature simply amazing and awesome as he demonstrates how plants seek out resources, take care of their young, defend themselves, and most other activities that animals undertake to ensure their survival and reproduction. The very notion of plants moving, sensing, and acting is off-putting at first, but utterly captivating in context.
The 53-minute documentary begins with Cahill seated immobilized in the middle of a meadow with plants growing around him. He takes on the role that we usually ascribe to plants. When I showed this film to my high school biology class, they were similarly transfixed. Split between two classes, my 50+ students agreed that this film was fascinating and allowed them to understand plants and ecology in a whole new light. They asserted that it was perfect for high school students like themselves, but not appropriate for younger viewers, as the ecology-on-view required some level of sophistication.
The idea that plants create their own food is turned upside down with the imagery of their feeding behavior. One can't help but ask, “What else can plants do?” Cahill's work in the lab and in the field is shown alongside other notable research. Plant ecologist Ian Baldwin reveals how wild tobacco plants not only emit chemical signals to their natural enemies, the hornworms that eat them, but their neighbors “eavesdrop” to produce anti-herbivore defenses of their own. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard shows how Douglas fir trees foster a mutualism with fungi, which encourages them to provide nutrients to their seedlings.
Cahill's use of time-lapse videography allows him and his colleagues to capture plant behavior on camera. Today's students could easily replicate his methodology, satisfying requirements to integrate technology into the classroom. Plants may lack brains, sensory organs, and limbs, but my students were filled with as much wonder as curiosity while they watched this film. Most promising is the potential for students to design their own investigations. In a delightful depiction of the nature of science as a way to understand the natural world on a time and spatial scale that we may not be used to, Cahill's film shows students the value of thinking creatively and critically, designing an elegant experiment, and then evaluating the evidence without ever losing the joy of discovery.
REMY DOU taught high school life science for eight years before becoming an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. He now works as a Graduate Assistant at Florida International University contributing to STEM education research. For column queries:
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