A is for Agriculture: Plant Science Can Be Childs’ Play

A young visitor to UH Mānoa extracts DNA from papaya as part of the Gene-ius Day curriculum for third graders.

Gene-ius Day for 3rd graders

Photo provided by Ania Wieczorek

You don’t have to be a molecular biologist to know that your sister Yuki’s long toes look just like your father’s, and that Dad’s toes look a lot like his Mom’s. But knowing how Tutu’s toes ended up on Yuki’s feet is the first step toward understanding the biotechnology revolution that is transforming medicine, agriculture, police work, and a host of other disciplines. To help elementary school students, teachers, and parents master the ABCs of DNA, Dr. Ania Wieczorek in UH Mānoa’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences (TPSS) has developed the Gene-ius Day outreach program, which introduces the topics of genetics and heredity to youngsters in grades 3 through 6. Keiki compare their traits with those of parents and other family members to observe that aspects of our appearance are inherited, but each individual is unique. Age-appropriate books donated to classrooms connect the traits that kids can see to basic biology concepts, such as cells, proteins, chromosomes, genes, and DNA. With home and classroom preparations complete, the kids are ready for a Gene-ius Day field trip to the UH Mānoa campus, where additional activities reveal that all living things have traits, that plants contain DNA just like people do, that plant traits are an important part of farming and food production, and that with the right equipment, even eight-year-olds can extract long, pearly strands of DNA from a papaya. Back in their classroom, the kids make posters to communicate what they’ve learned, just like professional scientists do.

TPSS childhood education programs aren’t limited to the lab. Gardening is an engaging way to teach children that the fruits and vegetables we eat grow from seeds, soil, water, and sun. Student volunteers from the UH Mānoa Student Organic Farm Training program (SOFT, formerly the Sustainable and Organic Farm Training program) are helping first graders from Noelani Elementary School learn to grow, nurture, study, and harvest edible plants and flowers at SOFT’s Magoon Research and Instruction Facility vegetable plot. The keiki start plants from seed, transplant them into the garden, and weed them whenever they visit. They conduct experiments on how different types of soil hold more or less water and how some plants prefer full sunlight while others like shade. Back in the classroom, they draw, talk, and write about their experiences in the garden, and at the end of the year, they cook the food they’ve grown. Rave reviews for eggplant, mizuna, and daikon soup are a sure sign that farming can give kids a healthy appreciation for vegetables.

The O‘ahu Urban Garden Center (OUGC), a 30-acre facility maintained by UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) with the invaluable help of many committed volunteers, offers children a more whimsical side of gardening. More than 4000 schoolchildren visit the OUGC each year. Some tour the entire site, which is located in Pearl City; others visit the 1.25-acre Children’s Garden, which consists of eight themed installations.  The Hawaiian Alphabet Tree Garden is home to native trees whose names begin with Hawaiian letters: five vowels, seven consonants, and the ‘okina, or glottal stop. The Sensory Garden has paved walkways and railings to assist the physically challenged and features plants that can be seen, smelled, heard, and touched. The Sundial Garden introduces a nostalgic way to tell time. The wedge-shaped beds of the Pizza Garden contain herbs and vegetables grown for pizza toppings. The Boardwalk Garden lets kids walk through a bog without getting wet. The Butterfly Garden offers a walk-through caterpillar tunnel and nectar-rich flowers that attract butterflies. The Animal Garden, watched over by a topiary giraffe named Nellie, includes shrimp plant, tapeworm plant, and bird of paradise. And a miniature dwelling in the House Garden features plants playfully chosen for their names, from shampoo plant in the bathroom to sandpaper plant in the garage.

Another kid-friendly event hosted at the OUGC is Second Saturday at the Garden. Developed by TPSS extension agent Jayme Grzebik and fellow CTAHR faculty members Steve Nagano and Dr. Ray Uchida, Second Saturdays feature monthly gardening workshops, craft making, plant sales, expert green-thumb advice, and a chance to explore the gardens outside weekday business hours. The OUGC is also home to O‘ahu’s Agricultural and Environmental Awareness Day, an annual CTAHR event at which about 500 fifth-grade students learn about problems to be solved and career options to explore in agriculture, food science, and natural resources management. Our future scientists face daunting challenges: expanding the knowledge-based economy, producing food and fuel sustainably, and meeting human needs while conserving resources and habitat. The love of learning we inspire in them today will pay dividends for years to come.