The saying about teaching someone to fish has some similar parallels when applied to teaching someone how to conduct scientific research.
Jeremy Pattison, with the Plants for Human Health Institute at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, recently began working with educators and students at four Rowan County high schools to help them create and conduct scientific trials on tomatoes.
As an educator and agricultural scientist, Pattison ultimately wants to inspire students to get more involved in the field while imparting knowledge to teachers.
“When you work with a student, you work with one student,” said Pattison. “But when you work with one teacher, you affect every student that teacher works with.”
Pattison, 38, is part of the faculty at N.C. State University. He’s working with students and teachers at East Rowan, Jesse Carson, South Rowan and West Rowan high schools. Each school is conducting different tomato trials with variations in fertilizer treatments, pot size and transplant size.
The idea behind the project is that the principles learned through this experiment will allow teachers and students to develop their own future experiments, said Pattison.
The hands-on research project teaches students about agriculture, math, science and the economy. Because agriculture is the state’s biggest industry, the project emphasizes our area’s growing local food movement.
Students at South Rowan High School on Feb. 20 harvested their third batch of tomatoes in the school’s greenhouse to collect data on their bounty.
They are trying to see if industry pruning standards are superior to extra pruning or no pruning at all.
Industry standards are to trim all but one of the “suckers” below the first branch with fruit. Suckers eventually become branches that grow more tomatoes and, possibly, overcrowd the plant.
The second group of plants will have all suckers trimmed throughout the vine. A control group of plants won’t be trimmed at all.
Will pruning help produce a bigger, healthier tomato? Will it make the plant produce a higher or smaller yield? These are the types of questions students hope to answer.
Pre-cut holes in plywood help the student scientists consistently measure each tomato as small, medium, large or jumbo. They also weigh the crop and record other data – such as the average weight, vine height and total output.
Eventually students from each school will pool their data, analyze it and decide how to use that information for either another experiment, or to try and replicate the results and grow tomatoes again.
“We see this project as a way of expanding their curriculum,” said David Overcash, an agriculture education teacher at South Rowan. “This gives students some hands-on learning while ... they can go more in detail with the research side. And not only are the students learning, but I’m learning about research design: how to set up and experiment, replication and how to manipulate the variables we can actually control.”
Pattison said the experiments serve as a platform for students to learn about and practice science. The scientific process can be kind of cold, but Pattison said generating knowledge is empowering.
“When you do it, you get excitement,” said Pattison. “Up until this point, we’ve just been growing tomatoes; but now we’re collecting data. I get excited when we start looking at the data to perform summary statistics, and finding out how things are progressing and if our hypotheses were appropriate or not.”
Haley Shore, a junior at South Rowan who has been involved in the school’s agricultural program since she was a freshman, thinks the plants that get totally pruned more will produce a higher yield, but not necessarily larger tomatoes.
“I’ve learned that there’s a lot that goes into scientific research,” she said. “If you’re a producer – or if you’re just growing it for yourself – I think it’s very important to know which variety and which pruning method is going to produce the highest yield and best tomato. This research is very important, and there’s a reason behind everything we’re doing.”
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