Hands-on learning in the greenhouse

A revamped plant biodiversity lesson invites introductory biology students into the department’s greenhouse for an extensive tour and hands-on lessons with the diverse collection.

Holding a broad tropical leaf, a person speaks to students holding papers in a greenhouse.
Showing off the broad, tropical leaf of a banana plant, Samara Gray (left), greenhouse coordinator, highlights the diverse collection of the middle room of the Biology Department’s facility. During the tours, Gray and other staff point out specialized adaptations of certain plants, such as the water-conserving features of succulents, or the unusual features of carnivorous plant species.    

On a chilly winter day, a group of 24 introductory biology students warmed up in the campus greenhouse during an extensive introduction to plant diversity, one of 20 sections of students to participate in such a tour. While a greenhouse tour has long been part of the laboratory curriculum, this spring semester marks the launch of a revamped plant biodiversity module, a joint effort between Samara Gray, the greenhouse coordinator, and instructional laboratory coordinators Linda Robinson and Karl Siegert.

“I thought this would be a good way to get these students, the majority of which are pre-meds, interested in plants,” says Robinson. “As part of the lab we’ve had students dissect things like lilies, mosses, and pinecones, but in the greenhouse they get to see a much larger diversity.”

The hour-long tour and an accompanying written assignment, which students complete in the greenhouse, entails encounters with plants including a banana plant, a 150-year old cycad, and a Venus fly-trap. There are also more mundane species like peppers and tomatoes, associated with educational or research projects undertaken by students and faculty in the biology department.

The goal is to give students a more thorough and engaging introduction to plant biology and diversity.

“I’ve been working to get students more interested in the greenhouse, and this was a great way to do it,” says Gray. “We’ve already had one student ask to volunteer here from the tour. Once students find out about the greenhouse, they want to be here more.” 

“The students love it here,” adds Robinson. 

Two people smile at one another framed by plants in a greenhouse. One holds paper she is writing on.
For two seniors—biology major James Nassur (left) of Pittsburgh and Shelly Teng, a bioengineering major from Clarendon Hills, Illinois—the lab visit was their first time in the greenhouse. “I didn’t know we had a greenhouse, and I also didn’t know there was so much research going on about plant diversity at Penn,” says Teng.
Plants grow in black plastic pots. A white label reads gives the order, family, genus and species names.
To assist students in gleaning information about plant diversity and classification, and to keep the collection up-to-date, Gray and Kathryn Reber, the greenhouse and garden manager, have labeled each specimen with taxonomic information including order, family, genus, and species. Here, a grouping of tomatoes will serve as the basis of the lab students’ investigation of water loss due to evaporation.
Viewed partially through a glass door, people look around a greenhouse filled with vibrant green plants, some flowering.
After the tour, students filled out worksheets using information Gray shared, as well as from assigned readings and their own observations. “When I have taken students back here for short tours, they’re like, ‘Oh cool, there are carnivorous plants!’ but they don’t pay that much attention to what grouping of plants exist, or the adaptive features that they have evolved,” says Robinson (center, in white shirt), an instructional lab coordinator. “With this longer tour we still show them the cool plants, but they also get a lot more information about taxonomic groupings and adaptive traits.”
Two students examine one of their phones for information as the other holds a folder and pencil. They are framed by vibrant green plants in a greenhouse.
Students admired orchids and air plants while completing their assignment. Gray and Reber pulled together specialized plant collections to broaden the students’ study of plants. One that highlights plant evolution features one of Earth’s oldest plants, the whisk fern, which likely evolved hundreds of millions of years ago.