Week 4: Last Day!

Where did 4 weeks go!? It seemed like they would stretch on for ages with all the different plans that were laid out for us. Alas, the final day of the course has arrived and we are busy putting together our lesson plans, powerpoints… you name it, everything a teacher should NOT be doing in July and August, we have been doing!

But it has been a wonderful experience to be a part of, there is no denying that. The whole team have had an input and made sure we feel welcome, along with opening doors to technology and methodologies we just would not see in school. Further to that, working with another teacher who has different outlooks on education to my own has been a great experience. It is not easy to work intensively with someone you do not know for 4 whole weeks and hope that everything runs smoothly, but in this case I can honestly say that we both respected each others opinions and worked well as a team, so that has been an enjoyable learning curve as well.

Overall, if there is anyone reading this that is considering applying next year, I say, go for it! You get the opportunity to immerse yourself in true Biology, not the bite size sections that you sometimes feel the Leaving Cert course presents. You will work with a wonderful research team who love what they do and want to help. Most importantly, you get the chance to be a part of curriculum development right at the very foundations, by taking your own ideas and shaping them into something that becomes available for all to see and (hopefully!) use. 

Thanks to the whole team in UCD for affording us this possibility!

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Week 3: Friday, already?!

The end of the third week is upon us already, and we already feel there is so much we need to do! It is safe to say by now, myself and Louise feel well integrated into the group and this is definitely down to their open approach to the whole programme. Crissy (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/evans.html) sent us a cheery text to invite us to the lab this morning to witness the leaf staining for her vein density experiment as if it was for us all to meet up for a cup of tea and a catch up, and this lovely sense of “come on, yer one of us” is what makes this group of researchers so great to work with.


By the time our leaf had been through the wars and in and out of several concentrations of alcohol, it looked suspiciously worn (some of you may even know the feeling!) and we left it for another day to examine the slide. 

Next on the agenda was a trip to PEAC to work with Amanda, following on from last week. Her aim this morning was to show us how exactly she collects air samples to send off for analysis (checking for different isotope levels) in the gas chambers.


Essentially, what we were doing, in layman’s terms, was collecting bags of air! Yes, you read that correctly! With a pricey little pump, Amanda was able to extract the air carefully without mixing the chamber atmosphere with the external one. When I go home and tell them that I was working with scientists who were collecting bags of air and sending them away to be checked, I’ll be asked do I need to be checked and everything else I have done here will be immediately discredited! Sure enough, Amanda herself admitted that the first time she rang one of the labs to check about getting bags of air sampled, they put her on hold for quite some time. Sometimes you just have to believe there is a method to the madness!

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Week 3: Media Day!

Today was what we had christened Media Day. This meant sharing our insights with some interested parties from within the university on what exactly two teachers were doing in a science lab for the summer when they should by rights be at home! The aim of these conversations is to, hopefully, shine light on what we are doing here as an outreach programme, one with benefits to all who participated.

The chats were interesting, leading us to several conclusions. Teachers need continuous professional development if we are to keep our lessons fresh and interesting. An obvious observation, yes, but practised all the time? No. Universities need to keep an eye on what is going on outside the lab, where possible making an amount of their work relevant to schools. A link is needed between second and third level education, desperately. We have noticed while here just how much both parties got from the other in this short space of time – renewed interest in a topic, fresh eyes seeing something that trained ones do not. This kind of thing can only be good and it was concluded at the end of the day that, we all need each other in this cycle of science.

Now where to start…. 

“Hello, you are through to Dáil Éireann.”

“Great, can I have the number for Mr Quinn, please?…”


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Week 3 – Planning time!

So two weeks of intensive “what are we doing today with plants?” days are over and we are now in the planning stages of the programme. It is up to myself and Louise to consider everything we have observed over our time here and decide, how can we best put this to use in the classroom? We have seen so much that at first our ideas our endless and during our initial planning meeting, we are both scribbling furiously as if we are hearing winning lottery numbers! We are interrupting each other, finishing each others sentences, brimming over with ideas that just have to be mentioned before another one comes along and bumps it out of memory. Which is all well and good. Until, staring at our very long list of things to do, we know something has got to give and we need to drop a few ideas. Two weeks seemed so long but in reality, it is nothing if we really want to make our mark on the curriculum and do ourselves and our research group proud with a decent, interesting programme the students will want to be a part of.

With a few things struck off the list, we decide to focus on Transition Year. It is in this area we are free to put together our own ideas rather than cut and paste them into an already jam packed leaving cert course, and it is here we can really grab the students attention by enticing them into the study of palaeobotany and plants.

If I at any stage thought this would be a simple process of sharing ideas and throwing them together, the first day of planning proved me wrong! To make something that you are happy to put your name to, you really need to be sure of what you are doing, and so… stacks of books were pulled out. It is really important to us that our students reap the benefits of us being here this summer, so lesson ideas must be filled with practicals but of course, lined out with theory.


So for now, this teacher is well and truly back at school (and I’m letting everyone know who goes on about how lucky us teachers are for the lengthy holidays!)

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Day 10 – Wonders of Wheat

Today’s activities were led by Lisa (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/keogh.html), who is investigating the effects of raised and lower levels of carbon dioxide on crop productivity, whilst also taking into account the effect of temperature on these. Initially, I wasn’t sure just how much could be garnered about the food industry from a starting point such as this:


It was only when Lisa informed us that 2 out of every 5 calories consumed comes form wheat products that I sat up and start paying attention. Sure, I knew wheat and crops accounted for a huge food mass, but I had never really thought of it in numbers before. When I sat down this evening and thought of a typical day in terms of food, I suddenly could see what she meant: Weetabix for breakfast, possibly a pasta lunch or dinner, slice of toast in the evening… it is an incredibly interesting project that she is undertaking and one that really needs to see the results being put to correct use, otherwise we will end up in years to come seeing wheat as a treat! 

The plants here have been grown at various levels of CO2 and different temperatures, with productivity observed. Disturbingly, the atmospheric conditions that we may have in the not so far away future, point towards some mutant wheat strains and others with increased quantity but a decrease in quality in terms of food value.


This is really worrying from a food economics point of view – if so much of our diet relies on wheat products, where do we turn to when we have forced them to become counter productive? What will our new staple be? Will the countries who aren’t ready for that kind of challenge suffer and see a potential modern famine like we had so long ago based around the humble spud? But then I think, there are famines all over the world anyway and we quite happily are not involved with them except to throw money in a bucket on the street every now and then. But if the whole world might be suffering, who will collect for who? Lisa really got us thinking today about how food economics needs to be studied and then double checked and then studied some more. The earth is providing us with all of these grains but the more we force them to do our bidding, “grow faster, be heavier, look a certain way”, the more likely they are to turn their backs on us and force us to look for an alternative that we may not have the resources to do. Plants, we need you, we’ll treat you better, please stay!


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Day 9 – Thermal Imaging & PEAC Labs

Today proved to be a jam packed day of information and new plants that we hadn’t previously seen in the PEAC site on the Rosemount part of campus, with our latest tour guide for the day Harry (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/yiotis.html). Personally I had been really looking forward to this activity – we were getting to use the thermal imaging camera (you know the one, they use it in Predator / war movies where they suss out the baddies using this crazy equipment that you think can’t really possibly exist because it seems too high tech but secretly hope you will one day really experience? You see where I am going with this!) So I figured we would spend the day taking pictures like this, just for laughs.


But as it turns out, this super sensitive, nicely pricey camera was not just a play thing and can be put to great use to measure the relationships between the wet and dry temperature of leaves, and the stomatal conductance, something Harry was putting it to use for for the day. photo.JPG


We used the camera on ten different species to measure these recordings. During this time we discussed the need for plants to close stomata in response to conditions that were often too hot or too dry (something the poor things are currently having to do at the minute in these weather conditions!).


Next up was time to get the full tour and talk about the Peac lab set up. This facility houses chambers that are designed to allow the experimentation of different levels of gas in our atmosphere, for example ambient levels, low oxygen levels, high carbon dioxide levels.

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By allowing plants to grow in these various atmospheric conditions, the team can examine plant events long before our time, and what we might be able to predict for the future. This of course will be of major importance to us, but I never realised just how much until I started here in UCD – suddenly it is my main focus to discover where will plants take us and how will they help us in years to come.

With the different ratios of gases in the chambers, precautions need to be taken when entering. Harry was only too happy to model the current season of Peac fashions; I won’t be rushing out for one myself, can’t see them taking off!


After a friendly lunch time debate on such topics as bad Irish food, bad Greek food, bad Turkish food, Norman invasions, Viking invasions, does the macademia nut come from Macedonia, Irish bog men and much more, we headed back into the heat of the greenhouses with Harry to discuss plant adaptations – how do they protect themselves from herbivores? This is something of great interest as there is a tendency to presume because plants can’t move, they can’t protect themselves.

Plant poisons, unusual leaf colours, thorns, succulent leaves, variegated leaves (less colour around the edges) were all discussed in detail and it really got us thinking, when it comes to natural defence plants really are steps ahead of us in many ways. See can you pick out the plant from the picture below that is often known as Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (but maybe don’t explain your reasoning for your choice if she is knocking around!)

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Harry, a bottomless pit of information on all things plants, finally decided we had seen and done enough and if we didn’t call it a day soon, it wouldn’t only be the plants looking for water after the heavy heat! We headed away from the Peac facility with lots to think about on the similarities that we often overlook between plants and animals.

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Day 7 – Stomata Day!

Today we were working with Amanda (http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/porter.html), who is researching changes in CO2 levels in the Carboniferous-Permian glaciations. This meant lots of chat about stomata, the tiny pores generally found on the underside of the leaves that are used for gas exchange. She outlined for us how observations made from modern plants can tell us a lot about a similar plant fossil, in terms of the number of stomata present. In general, high concentrations of CO2 lead to low numbers of stomata and in reverse, low levels of CO2 will lead to increased numbers of stomata, as they need to compensate. In the time frames discussed, millions of years ago, we got onto the topic of the dinosaurs and anything else that lived in that time; if levels of CO2 were relatively high, how on earth was anything in the animal kingdom able to survive? What was their secret to living in an atmosphere that we could not thrive in today? I have found it impossible during my time here to completely separate plant biology from all other sciences, once you start into a debate on how living things adapted and survived. More evidence for my students, everything IS connected!

With the theory discussed, we headed for the lab where Amanda showed us a basic method for counting stomata which would be perfect for the classroom with simple resources (clear nail polish and Sellotape).


The clear nail polish was painted in a thin layer over the back of the leaf and left to dry. This layer was then removed with a strip of Sellotape and placed on the slide, then viewed under the microscope. We were shown how to use a computer programme that placed a counting box (for lack of a technical term here on my part!) on sections of the leaf, where we counted the tiny pores. This was really useful for us as teachers as got to make some great slides and images to show in class on the topic.


As wonderful as these were, we went one step up from our usual microscope that we are used to having in school labs and used the fluorescence microscope to produce this image below – highlight of my day!


I am forever changing the image on the desktop on my laptop to something wonderful and pretty like this, and now I can say, I made this image myself! It even strikes me that introducing the topic of stomata to a Leaving Cert group with a picture like this (with me standing just to the left of the screen and giving a class long presentation at how proud I am that I produced this myself!) will surely make it more appealing than merely discussing the small amount of information that they need to know for the course.

Today we also discussed the importance of isotopes when measuring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Plants have a more efficient relationship with carbon-12 (as it is lighter) than carbon-13. This was something that was fairly new to me and of interest from a chemistry point of view – there is much more than identifying leaf shapes and examining fossils needed before we can predict past atmospheres.

With this in mind, we got to crushing some samples of ginkgo leaves to be sent off for isotope analysis in a mass spectrometer. 


Today was an enjoyable day in the lab with a very patient Amanda helping us through some of the trickier steps of using a microscope I will unashamedly admit I am very envious of! And did I mention, did you see what I made today!?


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