Wisconsin Fast Plants

I teach two sections of an Intro to Biology course, a course called Biology of Food and Agriculture.  One of the things I try to do with my students is get them in the dirt, growing things.  In the past, I’ve had them grow edible foods, but we haven’t had the greatest success.  Even in a greenhouse, the lack of sunlight in winter and the weeks of single digit and below temperatures outside make the growing conditions less than ideal.

This year, I’m trying something new.

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Our department purchased several Wisconsin Fast Plants lab kits that illustrate lots of different basic biology concepts.  Three professors, including myself, are going to be conducting a total of six long-term research projects in various classes.  The kits are sold by Carolina and the Fast Plants program was developed at the UW-Madison.  

First, I am doing a monohybrid genetics experiment.  I planted the P1 and P2 generation seeds last week Thursday, and by Tuesday when the class was going to plant the F1 seeds, they had already sprouted!

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They are growing under light banks stocked with 16 CFL lights that are on 24 hours a day.  The light and the heat from them ensure that they are going to grow to maturity within only 42 days.  When the seed pods mature, we’ll let them dry and the students will then plant those F2 seeds.  And then, we get to dive into the wonderful world of Punnett’s Squares!

The kits are stocked with everything you need.  You could DIY them, but for this first time, we decided the kits were the best way to go.  They are self-watering; the water is held in a tupperware with a submerged “watering mat”.  The watering mat is little more than a fly pad that extends into the water and that the styrofoam quads that contain the soil and seeds sit on.  There is another wick in each cell of the quad that carries moisture from the watering pad into the soil.  

These seeds had already started to sprout, less than 48 hours after being planted!

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Two other professors and I are also doing a lab that examines the effect of salts in soil on plant growth rate. This lab isn’t set up yet, but we will start it on Tuesday, and combine our results.

I am also attempting one of the DIY methods.  Instead of buying a kit, we assembled a similar self-watering system using 2 L soda bottles, a polyester wick, potting mix, Osmocote fertilizer pellets, and the standard fast plant seeds.  

For this experiment, each group has three bottles growing – each planted with either a low, a high, or an optimum amount of fertilizer pellets.

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These have also started to sprout, so were off to a great start!

The students have calendars with their assigned tasks throughout the 50 days.  They will need to keep the water fresh and full, thin plants if necessary, pollinate the flowers, and take the appropriate measurements 3-4 times a week.  Eventually they will be writing a full lab report, including data analysis, from the results of the fertilizer experiment.

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We had to order another light bank to fit everything that will be arriving soon and the remaining 2 labs will fit under that light.  We’ve got a pretty great looking system going now, and I’m really hopeful that it will work and be useful for years to come.

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