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Teaching a Plant Physiology Laboratory Course for the First Time?
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by Carol Reiss, ASPB Education Committee

If you've come to this site, you are probably about to organize your first teaching lab. Most likely, the prospect is frightening as well as exciting. There are so many questions: "Where can I get light-sensitive lettuce seed?" "How do I set up an oxygen electrode, and do I want to?" "What plants are most appropriate for a given experiment?" These are valid and important questions, but before trying to attend to all the details, consider some larger issues.


Give some thought to the big picture.

  • What do you want to teach the students in your laboratory course?
  • Is the major function of your course to provide laboratory experience?
  • Is the lab a supplement, solely in place to illustrate concepts discussed in lecture?
  • Do you want to get your students interested in doing research with plants?
  • How many students will be taking your course? Will there be more than one section? How many students per section?
How you answer these questions will help you to determine what kind of experiments (e.g., student designed vs. "cookbook") are most suitable for your course.


Answering the questions below will help you to determine what topics should be covered and if the proposed workload is realistic:

  • Will the students taking your course be Biology majors?
  • If you are teaching at a large agricultural college, will your students be majoring in applied areas?
  • At what level (sophomore, junior) are most of your students?
  • What are the prerequisites for your course?
  • You don't have to do everything and it doesn't have to be perfect the first year.
  • Several years will pass before you come up for tenure; learn from the first year and keep improving.
  • Ask yourself why each experiment is important, what does it add to the whole?

Is there a course already in existence which you will be taking over?

  • If so, it is a good idea to stay (for the most part) with the existing course for the first year. The reasons are obvious: the instructions to students are written, all the required equipment is in place, scheduling has been thought out and the experiments should all be at the appropriate level.
  • But there may be some problems with this approach: the existing experiments may be out-of-date, or unworkable, or emphasize the area of interest of the previous teacher.
  • Adopt and modify. You might choose to throw out a few experiments and replace them with some of your own choosing.
Starting from scratch? Things to think about:
  • How many experiments will you do? Can you fill up a whole semester?
  • Or two semesters? It is possible to have too much material.
  • As you look for potential experiments, keep in mind the goals of your course.
  • An experiment should be more than time filler; it should have a purpose that the students can understand and a goal they can achieve.
What experiments did you do when you took Plant Physiology or when you taught Plant Physiology as a graduate teaching assistant?
  • This is an obvious source of information, because you know what stayed with you and what worked well.
  • Some of this material may be out of date. However, an experiment can be rewritten and updated by the use of more appropriate language. For example, a simple, observation only, growth and development experiment may be made relevant to the existing thought on the subject by a discussion of the observed events in terms of gene expression.
Look over published laboratory manuals
  • The major advantage to using a published laboratory manual is that a lot of the work has already been done for you; experimental instructions for the students and lists of materials needed are part of the text.
  • Most manuals include many more experiments than can be completed in a single semester or quarter, so you can pick and choose those that look interesting and for which you have the equipment on hand (or can order without much expense).
  • Lack of available equipment may be a problem. You must be aware when you make your choices what equipment is already in place and how much money is available for new equipment.
  • If you do use a published laboratory manual and run into problems, don't be afraid to contact the authors for help. They wrote it, but in truth, it's almost impossible to get every detail down in print. Most authors would be happy to give you advice about setting up an experiment for the first time, or help you determine what went wrong if it was a flop.
  • If you don't want to adopt an entire manual, it is still useful to look through the ones that are available and get some new ideas. Remember that it is an infringement of copyright to photocopy an experiment for your class. However, the idea and the experiment itself are not under copyright; you may extract an experiment from a text, rework and rewrite it to fit your needs.
Some published laboratory manuals:
  • Kaufman, Peter B., John Labavitch, Anne Anderson-Prouty, and Najati S. Ghosheh, Laboratory
  • Experiments in Plant Physiology. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975. Somewhat out of date; good selection of experiments.
  • Meidner, Hans, Class Experiments in Plant Physiology. London, England: George Allen and Unwin, 1984. Written as a teacher's guide, giving lots of details and advice.
  • Moore, Thomas C., Research Experiments in Plant Physiology, a Laboratory Manual. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1973. Somewhat out of date, but great for the classic experiments.
  • Reiss, Carol, Experiments in Plant Physiology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994. Great on "how to."
  • Roberts, J. and D.G. Whitehouse, Practical Plant Physiology. London: Longman Group, Ltd., 1976.
  • Ross, Cleon W., Plant Physiology Laboratory Manual. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1974. Excellent, if somewhat out of date.
  • San Pietro, Anthony, Ed., Experimental Plant Physiology. St. Louis: The C.V. Mosby Company, 1974. Classic experiments written as a guide for teachers.
  • Witham, Francis H., David F. Blaydes, and Robert M. Devlin, Exercises in Plant Physiology. Boston, MA: Prindle, Weber Schmidt, 1986. Sixty four experiments to choose from.
Are there any aspects of your research that could be incorporated into a classroom experiment?
  • An experiment taken from your own research could be a valuable addition to the classroom experience of the students. Not only do you know all about how to set up and organize the experiment, but you are likely to bring your own excitement into the classroom.
  • Don't overdo it. Three weeks on cell wall biochemistry will probably turn off most introductory students, no matter how excited you are about the material. Keep things in perspective.
  • A laboratory course gives the students an opportunity to delve into things in more detail; let the students determine which material they want to spend more time with.
  • Remember to keep asking why you're doing the experiment. If the only reason is that it's easy for you then you might want to rethink the exercise in terms of the students.
Is there research being done on campus which can be adapted to the classroom setting?
  • When you talk to your colleagues about their research, keep one ear open for the possibility of using it in the classroom.
  • The benefits are great: you have an expert on campus who can help you iron out problems and supply you with relevant materials, such as cultures, plasmids, etc.
  • You can even ask you colleague into the classroom to give a guest lecture or to answer questions.
  • The usual pitfall applies: don't overdo it.
Visit the ASPB Education Booth, WEB site and Poster sessions.
  • New as well as tried and true ideas for experiments are presented every year at the ASPB annual meeting. Take the opportunity to discuss the posters with the authors. They can offer advice on preparation and presentation.
  • The ASPB web site ( offers information about the organization and is expanding to provide lists of resources and teaching assistance.

Organization, organization, organization.

  • The more you organize in advance the easier the semester will be. Use the same skills that you would use to organize a research experiment to plan the experiments for the whole semester.
  • You will be working with some limitations. Find out what they are. What services are available to you? For example, is there a greenhouse? A greenhouse staff? Or must you grow all your plant material under lights in the laboratory: If so, you might want to concentrate on using materials from the grocery store (many experiments can be done with potatoes, spinach, cabbage, apples, etc.) or get the students to grow the plants in class and follow their development.
  • Set up a calendar; list everything that must be done for each day.
  • Develop a book of instructions for making solutions; include amounts, directions, details and deadlines.
  • Develop a list of planting times and instructions.
  • Develop a detailed list of materials needed for each experiment.
  • Keep all the information in one place, so that it's easily available next year.

What works?

  • Be ready to rewrite, greatly alter or simply scrap an experiment that doesn't get results.
  • Remember, getting "good" results is not the most important aspect of doing an experiment. In fact, failed experiments offer an opportunity for the students to learn what an experiment is all about; a great deal can be gotten out of a class discussion of the possible reasons for unexpected results.
  • However, some experiments just do not go well in undergraduates' hands. If the lesson the students get out of the experiment year after year is a negative one, it's time to drop, or least rework, the experiment.
What are the students getting out of each experiment?
  • It may not be what you originally intended. For example, in the classic Mineral Nutrition experiment, students prepare solutions (some lacking specific minerals) and are asked to observe symptoms as they develop. Your goal might be for the students to relate the symptoms they observe to the missing mineral.
  • The experiment may be unsuccessful (in part because of student pipetting errors), and you may hear that the experiment is "boring." Most important, the students may not be making the desired connection between the mineral and the plant response.
  • By presenting the same experiment in a demonstration format, with the "unknown" solutions prepared in advance, and having the students follow a key to identify the missing nutrient, you can greatly increase student interest as well as meet your goals.

There's not enough of it.

It is unlikely that you will accomplish everything you want to do in the first few years. In fact, while the above advice may be golden, you simply will not be able to follow through with everything you plan at the start. You will find yourself running ragged when, for example, that pH meter you were counting on suddenly goes haywire or the plants you were expecting to use don't grow. These things will happen. Go to the grocery store and make the best of it. You are learning. The goal is not be be perfect the first year, but to learn enough so that in every subsequent year the course improves with less and less effort.

Most of all, have fun. Get excited, even over minor successes. Your students will get excited too.

This is a publication of the ASPB Education Committee, funded by ASPB and ASPB Education Foundation.

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