22nd Jul 2014

An online platform is helping to tackle a decline in the number of undergraduate students studying plant science.

Despite the critical relevance of the subject to global priorities such as food security, the Royal Society has raised concerns that we face a looming skills gap in the area.

The online platform - the Plant Science TREE, developed by the University of Leeds with funding from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation - is  designed to address the issue by helping to grab the interest of undergraduates entering biological science courses.

It provides a central repository bringing together online research lectures and other contributions from plant science academics across the world in an easily accessible and browsable online format at: .

Prof Alison Baker of the Centre for Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds, said: “By creating, sharing and bringing together engaging plant science educational resources in a one-stop, easy to use repository, the aim is to put a tool in the hands of educators that will engage students in plant science and research, especially where expertise is becoming limited”

More than 90 research academics and publishers have contributed over 2000 resources, including online research lectures, research-led lecture slides, practicals, video clips and other resources on topical plant science. The TREE is freely available and is currently used by scientists, educators and students from over 320 institutes worldwide.

A new study, published in New Phytologist, looked at the impact of a series of online research lectures on the TREE by leading academics giving first-hand insight into how discoveries are made and science is carried out. The online research lectures, were filmed at the Gatsby Plant Science summer schools, and are pitched at a level to engage undergraduates. Undergraduates from four UK universities were provided with links to the resources as part of their course.

The lectures were successful in engaging students with plant science, with a majority of students stating that watching a single online research lecture had made them more interested in plant science and research in general. Students reported that they place a high value on the opportunity to watch research leaders talk about their research.

The study also found that the online research lectures helped students understand their lecture course, their subject and improve their course work. Students were unanimously of the opinion that viewing an online research lecture was a good way of learning about a subject. 

Interestingly, students reported that the online viewing experience was comparable to watching the research lectures live. When undergraduate students watched an online lecture at university, 86% rated it good or very good compared with 90% who had watched it live.

Dr Aurora Levesley said: “The TREE online research lectures represent a valuable tool for educators to introduce cutting-edge plant science research examples that address globally relevant applied initiatives as well as curiosity-driven research to their students. Our study shows that they have the potential of changing student attitudes to plant science, of engaging students in research and are able to reach a large and wide global student audience.”

The full paper: Levesley A, Paxton S, Collins R, Baker A and Knight CD, “Engaging students with plant science: the Plant Science TREE”, New Phytologist, June 2014 is available online: