In my post last week I described “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy“, a first year undergraduate exercise aimed at giving students experience and confidence using scientific names for species, as well as providing an understanding of taxonomic hierarchies and food diversity. The follow-up to this is an assessed questionnaire that focuses more deeply on plant taxonomy, phylogenetics, and human uses. Here’s the text of the exercise [with a few annotations in square brackets for clarity]:
ENV1012 Biodiversity: an Introduction
This exercise is assessed and is worth 25% of your final grade for this module.
The questionnaire is time constrained; you have two hours in which to complete it. Once completed, upload it to NILE using the Submit Your Work folder [NILE is our Blackboard e-learning platform]. Any questions, please ask or email me if I’m not in the room [email provided – the class is so large that I had to split it across two computer suites].
At the beginning of this session you will be given the name of a plant family. Your job over the next two hours is to research that family and answer the questions below. Each of you will be researching a different plant family so by all means discuss what you are doing and collaborate, but everyone’s final answers will be different.
For this exercise focus on the following websites:
The Tree of Life Project: http://www.tolweb.org/tree/
Note that we don’t usually recommend Wikipedia as a source of information, but much of the taxonomic material on this site is quite good because it is produced and maintained by experts.
Be accurate in your answers: you will lose marks for misspelled scientific names, genus and species names not italicised, appropriate use of capital initials, etc.
Do not copy and paste from websites – this will be spotted with the software that we use and your answers will be rejected.
- What is the scientific name of the plant family you are researching?
- Which botanist named the family? Hint – you will find an abbreviation of the name on the Wikipedia page.
- Does this family have a common name? If so, what is it? If not, say so.
- What is the distribution of the family, e.g. tropical or temperate, New World or Old World, global?
- Fill in this blanks on this taxonomic hierarchy:
Subfamilies (if present):
Tribes (if present):
- What is the estimated number of genera in the family?
- Provide the names of up to three of those genera:
- What is the estimated number of species in the family?
- What mode(s) of pollination do species in this family possess (e.g. wind, animal, water)?
- Provide a short description of the human uses of this family (no more than 50 words):
Using the Tree of Life site, find and list:
- The sister family or families to your family (hint: it’s the family or families closest on the evolutionary tree).
- The first “containing group” for your family (may be an unranked, informal taxonomic level).
- The next “containing group”.
- Keep going until you get to the final “containing group” – where do you end up? [a slightly trick question – everyone ends up at the same place]
- State one surprising or unexpected thing that you have learned from doing this exercise (no more than 25 words).
My students have now completed this exercise and I was very pleased with the outcome: the average grade was around A-/B+ and no one failed (yet, there are still come non-submissions…). The answers to question 15 were particularly interesting and included things like: “I had no idea that potatoes and chillies were closely related”, “amazed at the diversity of plants”, “didn’t realise that plants were so fascinating”.
The fact that students were able to do this in small groups, and discuss their findings, yet still produce largely unique answers, added a lot to the enjoyment of this exercise I think. Certainly there was a buzz in the room while they were researching their answers. It will be interesting to see what the module feedback is like at the end of term.
The grading criteria for this assessed questionnaire were fairly simple and straightforward:
- All questions answered.
- Answers are grammatically correct, with appropriate use of scientific conventions, e.g. underlined genus and species names, use of capitals, etc.
- Information presented is accurate
As always, feel free to comment, make suggestions, and point out errors and improvements.