'Lab-in-a-bag' helps U of T students study plants from home

Teaching technician Lisa Cheung assembled 50 'lab in a bag' kits for Ingo Ensminger's third-year plant physiology class, allowing students to grow and study plants remotely (photo by Randy Preising)

Ingo Ensminger had an idea when the pandemic prevented students from coming to campus to complete their lab work last summer: bring the lab to students.

Now, students in Ensminger’s third-year plant physiology course, which focuses on how plants are formed and function in their environments, are getting their hands dirty with their own comprehensive plant experimentation kits.

The “lab-in-a-bag” kits provide students with all the necessary supplies to grow and study plants in their homes. They also check-in with a teaching technician regularly.

“My first thought was that this could bring some cheer – a little piece in their daily schedule they might look forward to,” says Ensminger, an associate professor of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. “I know how difficult lockdown can be for students, spending all day in front of a computer.

“Now, they have a lab component that is a more haptic experience, where they can work with their hands and experiment for themselves.”

Teaching technician Lisa Cheung says she was initially skeptical when Ensminger first floated the idea, citing affordability and other potential issues. But with the support of the department of biology, the two figured out a way to make it work.

"It’s an experience beyond just crunching data at a computer,” Cheung says. “Growing a plant can give a sense of satisfaction; it’s something to do at home at a time when we can’t get out to do much of anything.”

Each kit contains 23 items, including hormone solutions, planting gloves, plant support stakes, a timer and a Munsell colour system chart for gauging colour changes in plant leaves(photo by Randy Preising)

Over several weeks last fall, Cheung identified and purchased supplies for growing seven plants – a mix of wheat and kidney bean plants. She set them up in different rooms to determine the best growing conditions. She tested five different grow lights until landing on a suitable option. Along the way, she recorded her insights to develop an instruction sheet for students.

“Many students have never grown anything from seed before. I took photos along the way of growing my plant and made a document for the experimentation process, and a schedule for the different stages,” Cheung says.

Cheung turned to Peter Duggan, supervisor of U of T Mississauga’s Academic Workshop, which designs, manufactures and repairs objects for the the campus research community, when she needed help making a light stand. Duggan devised a stand out of five PVC pipes that could be easily assembled.

Peter Duggan, supervisor of U of T Mississauga’s Academic Workshop, helped Cheung devise a stand out of five PVC pipes to support lighting (photo by Lisa Cheung)

Cheung then assembled 50 lab-in-a-bag kits for 48 students. Each kit contains 23 items, including hormone solutions, planting gloves, plant support stakes, a timer and a Munsell colour system chart for gauging colour changes in plant leaves.

Student Devin Seto's plants (photo courtesy of Devin Seto)

The students picked up their kits two weeks ago and Cheung is going on the journey with them. She is posting regular videos in the course’s learning management system with tips as well as updates on her own plants.

“I’m hoping this gives them appreciation for plants and stimulates an interest in studying plants,” Cheung says.

Tatiana Harvey, a fourth-year undergraduate student specializing in comparative physiology, says she had never grown a plant before and was excited to perform lab work, which she has missed during the pandemic.

“I wasn’t sure what the kit would be like, but I was quite amazed,” Harvey says. “It’s so intricately designed – it’s clear they put a lot of thought and time into its preparation,”

Harvey set up her plant station by a large window in her kitchen, checking on them each morning to see if the soil needs water. The plants recently began to germinate and Harvey says they’re sprouting at a fast pace – so much so that she needed to adjust the height of the light.

Harvey says that tending to the plants has become a bright spot in her day.

“I’m thankful for them giving us something to keep our minds occupied,” Harvey says. “In a world where so many things are happening, it’s nice to be able to take care of something.”

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